Kaine proposes employee-benefits policy change
Story by Chris Graham
The Kaine administration, in a sort of last act as its final days count down, has proposed a change in state policy that would allow state employees to choose between covering a spouse or an “otherwise qualfied adult” on their employee plus one health-care policies.
The policy could be on its way to becoming a political hotbutton with the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia trying to whip up opposition to what it perceives an attempt to run an end-around to the marriage amendment passed in 2006 on the one side and the gay civil-rights lobby Equality Virginia and leaders at public colleges and universities across the Commonwealth leading the charge in the direction of change on the other.
The review period for the proposed change could aid in putting the issue on track to political-controversy status, because the policy will in the end need to gain the approval of the gubernatorial administration of Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell, a social-conservative Republican for whom the matter could be an important bellwether.
“Based on McDonnell’s advisory opinion in the UVa. gym benefits case, based on his statements during the campaign that really gave people some hope that he would thoughtfully think through and apply business standards to the law in these questions, I am hopeful that he will be open to hear the arguments of the universities here as to what they think they need to stay competitive,” said Jay Fisette, a member of the Arlington County Board of Supervisors, and the first openly-gay elected official in Virginia dating to his first election to the local office in 1997.
The advisory opinion could be a key indicator as to where McDonnell will go on the proposed policy change. In the June 7, 2007, opinion to the University of Virginia on the gym-benefits matter, McDonnell as attorney general of Virginia wrote that it was his opinion that the school was permitted to provide a gym membership “to an adult who is not a spouse and who lives in the household of an employee or student.”
“This policy builds on that McDonnell decision,” said David Lampo, the vice president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a coalition of LGBT Republicans. “I’m sure he realizes that he can’t say that this strays into some radical gay-rights territory when it’s built on the UVa. gym decision where a state employee was allowed to add an otherwise qualified adult to the gym membership.
“It’s great that they used the same language and built on that. It makes it difficult for McDonnell to oppose it because it breaks some new ground or involves some sort of relationship recognition,” Lampo said.
UVa. has joined with the College of William and Mary and George Mason University in submitting a letter of support for the policy change.
“Many, perhaps most, of Virginia’s major corporations have offered similar coverage for several years,” reads the Oct. 6 letter, signed by UVa. president John Casteen, William and Mary president W. Taylor Reveley and George Mason president Alan Merten.
“Their motive has been to bring top employees to Virginia, and then to retain them. Executives from those employers have made clear that we benefit as a state by the increased capacity to hire and retain top employees that coverage of this kind provides. Our own experience and analysis suggest that most of the major national private and public universities with whom we compete when we hire or work to retain top faculty already offer domestic partner health insurance. The ability to offer this benefit is increasingly important as we attempt to recruit and retain the best faculty and staff in the most challenging economic climate that we have seen,” the presidents wrote in the letter.
The first bit of insight that we have into how the McDonnell administration will approach the proposed policy change comes in the form of the comment from McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin to VirginiaPoliticsToday.com for this story.
“The governor-elect and his policy staff are reviewing the proposed regulatory change,” Martin said in the statement. “While the governor-elect is a supporter of employer-based expansions of health coverage, he does have questions about the potential fiscal impact of this proposal during what is a very tough budget cycle. We will withhold further comment until such time as a full review has been completed.”
There is nothing about the constitutional matter being raised by the Family Foundation of Virginia there in that comment.
“Currently, only spouses and children are eligible for state health-care benefits. Because these types of benefits have traditionally been ‘benefits of marriage,’ expanding beyond marriage violates both the spirit and the language of the marriage amendment,” Family Foundation president Victoria Cobb wrote in a Dec. 8 action alert to Family Foundation supporters.
“While the proposed benefit expansion will ultimately be decided upon by Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell, who expressed reservations about the expansion due to possible costs, proponents of the policy claim that there will be no cost to the state,” Cobb wrote, hitting home on the fiscal issue raised by Martin in his statement on behalf of McDonnell.
One issue brought up by Cobb in the Family Foundation alert borders on the ridiculous, claiming that the proposed policy change would “seemingly allow a recent college graduate that gets a job with the state and who happens to room with a half dozen of his buddies to put them all on his health insurance.”
The scare tactic ignores the clearly delineated line item in the Kaine proposal limiting coverage to one otherwise qualified adult per household, and the line item requiring employees to pay 100 percent of the cost of the premiums for the adult being added to their policies.
The current state policy calls for the state to pick up 80 percent of the cost of premiums for employees, spouses and covered dependents.
“The fact that it doesn’t go as far as we would like it to, to the point of complete equity, is as much a function of the current budget climate as much as it is anything else,” said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, a lobbyist for Equality Virginia.
“I’m sure most people, including myself, would like to see parity between people included in this new plan,” Lampo said. “The state currently pays 80 percent of the employees’ and spouses’ health-insurance benefits. Ultimately, I think it would be preferable to have the same situation or arrangement for domestic partners or any otherwise-qualified adult in this plan. But the plan is smart in that it takes into account the political realities in Virginia, and that increases its chances for passage by a huge amount, because it won’t cost the state anything.”
“This should be a nonpartisan issue,” Fisette said. “It should be one where any administration would look at the facts. If it’s cost-neutral, as this is being proposed to be, if it expands the number of people who are covered by health insurance, and if it provides a competitive equity in terms of our efforts to attract top-level employees to the state, that’s a business case for this.
“All you have to do is look at the Fortune 500. A majority of them are already doing this. The private sector is way ahead of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Fisette said.
Comment on the proposed policy change in the Virginia Regulatory Town Hall online forum.