The domestic-partner policy, announced Jan. 29 to all employees through a memo with their paystubs, will allow the partners of gay and lesbian staffers to be included on the medical, dental, vision and prescription-drug plans currently offered to married heterosexual couples.
Art Heinz, communications coordinator at the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts, said the policy will apply only to same-sex partners of the employees and will not be offered to unmarried heterosexual couples. Support materials for those wishing to enroll in the program will be available shortly, Heinz said, and the program will officially open March 1.
Heinz said the idea for the initiative originated within the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court has given this subject considerable review over a period of years and concluded that, as a matter of equity, providing these benefits was appropriate for same-sex couples,” Heinz said. “Same-sex couples are uniquely affected by their inability to obtain healthcare coverage, so this was something the court deemed to be appropriate.”
Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffrey said a fellow judge first proposed the idea to him at a conference several years ago.
“I thought about it and somebody in the city’s sanitation department, or any other city worker, has access to medical coverage for their same-sex partners, but a judge does not, and that struck me as odd,” he said. “So I went back and spoke with my colleagues about that and we embarked on about 18 months of dialogue and research and come to a unanimous decision that this was an equal-rights issue that needed to be addressed immediately.”
The policy will be open to all judges in the state, as well as their staffers who are on the state payroll.
Heinz said there are just over 1,000 elected officials in the state, as well as nearly 1,000 staffers who’d be eligible, but said there was no estimate on how many LGBT individuals may take advantage of the policy.
“We expect it to be a small number, but we’re obviously unable to know definitely,” Heinz said.
Although some of the judicial staffers are paid by their city governments, and not the state, city workers in Philadelphia are eligible for domestic-partner benefits.
Heinz declined to predict how much implementation of the policy would cost, but one cost estimate by another court official put the price tag at less than $50,000.
McCaffrey concurred that the cost should be minimal, but said finances did not play a large role in the Supreme Court’s decision.
“There were some numbers thrown back and forth, but we didn’t feel it was going to be a big number,” the justice said. “We of course don’t know the number of people who are going to use this, but as I said to my colleagues, when the U.S. Supreme Court was deciding ‘Brown v. Board of Education,’ never once did the issue of money come up. It was about equality, fairness, equal rights. And that’s what we focused on.”
Employees and their partners must meet a number of criteria to qualify for the program.
The couple must have lived at the same residence and been in a relationship for more than six months, be responsible for shared living expenses and provide proof of financial interdependence. The employee and his or her partner must not be related to one another, nor in a domestic partnership or marriage with any other person.
Similar policies have only been instituted in a handful of state court systems, including California and Illinois.
Last May, the Pennsylvania Employees Benefit Trust Fund instituted a domestic-partner policy, which is open to both same- and opposite-sex couples, for about 140,000 current and retired state employees, but the fund does not oversee judicial employees’ benefits.
Jen Colletta can be reached at email@example.com.