Nebraska hospitals are starting to offer insurance benefits to same-sex couples, joining other large employers that have been doing so.
Hospitals in the combined Alegent Creighton Health/Catholic Health Initiatives Nebraska network, in the Methodist Health System and at the Omaha VA Medical Center will offer such benefits starting in 2014, health system officials said. The Alegent Creighton/CHI group has 16 hospitals and two inpatient behavioral health centers in Nebraska and Iowa. The Methodist system has three hospitals, two in Omaha and one in Council Bluffs.
The hospitals have thousands of employees in Nebraska and western Iowa — the Alegent Creighton/CHI group has 15,300, the Methodist system has nearly 3,800 and the VA med center has almost 1,400.
Officials aren't sure how many workers and their partners will be affected by the change, but national groups said the numbers are small and shouldn't add much cost for the employers.
The effect on the employees, however, could be significant. The Methodist system's change will save Jacob Walker and his husband, Michael Walker, close to $400 a month, Jacob Walker said.
Walker is a respiratory therapist at Omaha's Methodist Hospital. He and his husband were married in Red Oak, Iowa, in May 2009, a month after such marriages became legal in that state.
"Once I got married, I thought:
'Hey, all these other married people are saving money by getting insurance for both people from their employer and we're paying (more) separately,'" he said.
Walker wrote a letter to hospital officials asking whether Methodist would offer insurance to same-sex couples but was told in August 2009 that the hospital's insurance provider defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
“After that, I just kind of thought it was probably a lost cause,” Walker said.
Earlier this year, he emailed someone in the hospital's human resources department, asking whether officials planned to expand benefits to same-sex married couples in 2014. “I thought for sure he'd just email back and say, 'No, not at this time.' ”
Instead, he heard such coverage would begin at the first of the year.
Walker, who lives in Council Bluffs, said he was “surprised and happy and kind of relieved. That will be a big perk for us. That's a chunk of change to save every month. And the insurance at Methodist will actually be better than what my husband was offered.”
Holly Huerter, Methodist Health System's vice president of human resources, in a written statement and in answers to emailed questions, said, “Our benefit plans look to a number of federal statutes for plan administration and definitions.”
After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act this summer, she said, “we decided to continue to follow the federal law, and that allowed for same-sex benefits.” The benefits at Methodist, she said, include health, dental, vision and retirement.
In its ruling, the court ordered the federal government to provide federal benefits to all legally married couples, including same-sex couples married in states that allow gay marriage.
Huerter said in an email that whether they are same-sex married couples or opposite-sex married couples, “all participants sign an affidavit that their marriage is legal in accordance with our guidelines and that they understand if we determine it to not be legal, coverage will be terminated.” Methodist's coverage does not extend to “domestic partners,” she said.
The VA follows rules put out by the federal Office of Personnel Management, said Cheri DeWispelare, chief of human resources for the VA Nebraska Western Iowa Health Care System. “Whether they're same-sex couples or opposite-sex couples, the rules are the same for them.” Employees, she said, are eligible for health coverage, supplemental dental and vision coverage and life insurance and can set up flexible spending accounts.
The Alegent Creighton/CHI health plan allows “adult dependents” to be covered under an employee's health plan, which includes medical, dental and vision coverage, according to a statement provided by CHI.
“Because access to decent and affordable health care is a basic human right,” CHI said, “Catholic teaching does not preclude a Catholic organization from offering health coverage to any individual, but the offer should not be dependent on the individual being involved in a relationship.
“CHI reviewed the IRS definition of individuals eligible to be claimed as a dependent on a federal tax return,” the statement continued, “and used that definition as the basis for a new dependent classification, an adult dependent, to be eligible for CHI medical, dental and vision plans. An adult dependent will include any non-spouse adult, spouse as defined by CHI health plans as an individual of the opposite sex married to you, that is financially supported by you and lives with you.”
The coverage, CHI said, is “consistent with our mission and core values — it increases access to affordable health care for our employees' families.”
It also should help the employers recruit workers, said Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits for the Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Human Resource Management.
“If anything, it makes CHI more competitive,” Elliott said, noting that hospitals across the country have difficulty attracting enough nurses and physicians. If the jobs and the pay at two companies are comparable but one offers such benefits and another doesn't, he said, “Which are you going to?”
Among other Omaha and Lincoln hospitals, Children's Hospital & Medical Center and the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha and Bryan Health in Lincoln said they don't offer benefits to same-sex married couples. But Nebraska Medical Center spokesman Paul Baltes said, “We are working toward adding this as a benefit.”
U.S. businesses large and small are offering such coverage, said Deena Fidas, director of the workplace equality program for the Human Rights Campaign, which Fidas described as the nation's largest civil rights organization working toward equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The group's Corporate Equality Index 2014 report noted that of the surveyed employers providing partner health insurance, 68 percent provide them to both same- and different-sex partners of employees. Of the 718 health care facilities that responded to the group's 2013 Healthcare Equality Index, 55 percent said they provide coverage to employees' same-sex partners. Another 13 percent of that group said they didn't offer the coverage but were interested in offering it.
Benefits typically account for about 20 percent of an employee's overall compensation, Fidas said. “If an employee is just as valued and just as hard-working and happens to be gay,” Fidas said, “and is denied that full fifth of that compensation, that's essentially saying, 'Unequal pay for equal work.' ”
Most employers see an overall increase of less than 1 percent of total benefits costs when they implement partner benefits for the families of LGBT employees, Fidas said.
The Kaiser Family Foundation, in its 2012 Employer Health Benefits Survey — the most recent that asked about same-sex benefits — found that 42 percent of large firms (200 or more employees) that offered health benefits offered them to unmarried same-sex domestic partners; 31 percent of small firms did so.
Elliott said he expects more businesses to offer such benefits. “The writing's kind of on the wall here,” he said, as a result of the Supreme Court action on the marriage act. “I see an expansion of benefits eligibility.”