A proposed rule would extend health insurance to the children of gay people who are partnered with federal employees. But the domestic partners themselves would still be blocked from coverage because of the federal law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
The rule, proposed by the Office of Personnel Management last week, was written in response to a 2009 memo by President Obama that asked the agency’s director to figure out where it was possible to extend benefits to qualified same-sex partners of federal workers and their families under the confines of the current law.
The proposal is significant because same-sex couples often have trouble establishing legal ties to their children, as I pointed out in a column published on Saturday. Many states only allow one parent to form legal links to a child, which often leaves both the parent and child vulnerable. The child, for instance, may be unable to receive insurance through the employer of a nonbiological parent, which can be a particularly big burden if that parent is the sole breadwinner.
“This rule change would mean that federal workers can now be assured that a high fever, broken arm or debilitating illness won’t jeopardize their child’s health or their family’s finances,” said Emily Hecht-McGowan, the public policy director of the Family Equality Council, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian families.
Under the new rule, coverage could be extended to an unmarried dependent child, including a “stepchild” with whom a federal employee or retiree lives. The Office of Personnel Management used its rule making authority to define the term “stepchild” to include the children of a federal employee’s same-sex domestic partner. The section of the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, that defines marriage as between one man and one woman doesn’t apply because the coverage is not being extended to children based on marriage between the partners.
But this development still wouldn’t put these families on an entirely even footing with their heterosexual married peers. Federal employees and retirees will still be required to pay taxes on the market value of the coverage if the children aren’t considered dependents.
Why? As it stands now, employer-provided health benefits for domestic partners are considered taxable income (again, if the person being insured is not considered a dependent). That means the employee may owe federal and possibly state taxes on the value of the insurance — something that does not apply to families headed by heterosexual married couples. But as we’ve pointed out, there are a growing number of private companies and organizations that have decided not only to extend these benefits, but to pay the extra costs on their employees’ behalf.
Of course, the child’s other parent — or the same-sex spouse of the federal employee — is also ineligible for coverage under the proposed rule because the Defense of Marriage Act is still in place. But children would be eligible for coverage, including vision and dental insurance, through age 26.
Once the Office of Personnel Management has collected comments on the proposed rule, it will make any necessary revisions, publish a final regulation and then provide guidance to federal agencies and their employees on how to apply for coverage.
The Obama administration has already made other changes to help same-sex couples and their families within the scope of the current law. As we reported previously, it has clarified the Family and Medical Leave Act to ensure that same-sex couples can care for children of their partners, even if they are not legal parents, but care for same-sex partners is not covered. (Companies and other employers have adopted more comprehensive policies on their own.)
Meanwhile, the government has also required all hospitals receivingMedicare or Medicaid money to allow visitation rights for gay patients and their families. And it has also made some other minor but important changes that have flown below the radar, like putting more gender-neutral language on passport applications to recognize that some children are being raised by two legal parents of the same sex. And last year, the administration said it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court.
Still, there are plenty of other issues that the government still has not addressed, like figuring out ways to make it easier for children with same-sex parents to fill out the federal forms for student aid. Often, the forms do not allow the family to accurately portray its finances, which means the amount of aid they get may not reflect their needs.
New York Post
What do you think of the Office of Personnel Management’s new rule? Are there other areas where you think the administration could help families headed by same-sex couples, given the limits imposed by the current law?