City extends benefits for same-sex couples

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City extends benefits for same-sex couples

Story by Anna Soldner

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Until recently, gay, lesbian and transgendered Eau Claire city employees and their partners could only receive single-person health insurance coverage.

As of April 24, Eau Claire became the fourth city in Wisconsin to extend health care benefits to same-sex couples employed by the city.

In the plan, domestic partnerships can qualify for a limited family health insurance plan, a right that was previously granted exclusively to married couples.

City councilman and author of the proposal Andrew Werthmann said the approval has sparked an ongoing discussion about equality in the workplace and has set a state-wide precedent.

“I think that when you look across the state and you consider the fact that Eau Claire is the fourth city to pass such a measure that recognizes domestic partners, it speaks volumes to the national discussion and our state discussion about what’s fair in the workplace,” he said.

After two hours of debate, the final decision was met with a 10-1 vote in favor.

Councilwoman Jackie Pavelski was the lone dissenting vote. She said she believed the proposal was rushed and she didn’t have adequate information about the costs and implications to make an informed decision.

“My issue was never about fairness or equality and not having insurance,” she said. “To be honest with you, I’m not opposed to it, I’m just opposed to the process that we went through on this one. I don’t know what the urgency was.”

Alex Jacques, a senior music education major and member of the LGBT community, said he regards the decision as a “brave effort”  made in the Eau Claire City Council.

Despite the proposal being introduced and passed in less than a week, Jacques said he believed the extension of benefits still felt belated.

“Anything related to the rights or privileges as American citizens, and a decision made in favor of that is by no means rushed, instead I would argue that it is far overdue,” he said.

UW-Eau Claire English professor Bob Nowlan and his partner are married and have been together for over 13 years. Nowlan shared similar sentiments to Jacques, saying the LGBT community has worked together with straight supporters for years and has waited a “long, long time for these equitable opportunities.”

Because the number of gay and lesbian employees who will sign up for plans to cover their partners is unknown, Pavelski cited cost as a major concern.

“It is not just clearly a fairness issue that is simplistically defined by many,” Pavelski said. “It is about a cost issue, it is about some of the unanswered questions, it is about defining the state registry and why other cities have put conditions on it. So I think all of that needs to be reviewed.”

In defense of that argument, Werthmann noted that there is constant rotation of folks in and out of the healthcare plan, meaning the cost argument is both inaccurate and improbable.

“I don’t think cost is really going to be a huge issue and there’s flexibility in our budget and in the specific department budget in our city,” he said. “And that flexibility and the rotation of people in and out of the health plan I think is going to make it so we won’t blow a hole in the budget by any means.”

Nowlan said plenty of evidence exists out there about the social benefits of offering equitable opportunities to LGBT employees and their families.

“It already costs to provide it for opposite-sex employees and I think you certainly can’t put a cost on matters of fairness and justness,” he said. “It’s more of a question of equality than cost.”

Jacques said to him, cost seemed to be secondary in the grand scheme of the matter.

“I think it’s pretty silly to be that they would bring up the idea of cost,” he said. “I don’t even know how many families there are that this will apply to, but I think the bottom line here is that this is in the policy, this is on the books, and that means a lot for Eau Claire city’s integrity.”

Jacques and Nowlan both said that although the extension of rights doesn’t directly affect them, they are pleased to see Eau Claire make progress for LGBT rights.

“Although it doesn’t affect me — I’m a student so I don’t have a family or I’m not in a domestic partnership with my boyfriend — but to know that there are small local efforts being made,” Jacques said. “This means a lot and it makes me really proud to be going to the school where I am.”

The change includes a one-year contract that will be implemented starting July 1, 2012.

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