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UA to Offer Domestic Partner Benefits
The UA will be the only one of the state's three universities to offer insurance coverage to employees' domestic partners.
When University of Arizona employee Jennifer Hoefle learned last year that a change in state law would make her partner ineligible for health insurance benefits provided by the UA, worry took hold.Hoefle, the program director of the UA's Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Affairs, was just one of an estimated 149 University employees who faced losing coverage for their domestic partners as a result of a state law passed in September that redefined the term "dependent" to exclude domestic partners and their children. The law makes domestic partners and their children ineligible for state benefits through the Arizona Department of Administration, effective Oct. 1, 2010.
Now, Hoefle and other employees are able to breathe a sigh of relief, following the University's announcement that it will offer special insurance plans for employees with domestic partners.
"I'm absolutely delighted. Now we can celebrate," Hoefle said.
The University announced last week it will provide four insurance plans for employees with domestic partners – a medical plan underwritten by United Healthcare, a vision plan underwritten by Avesis, and two dental plans, one underwritten by Total Dental Health Administrators and the other by Delta Dental.
The plans will not be funded with state money.
Allison Vaillancourt, vice president for Human Resources, credits the leadership of UA President Robert N. Shelton and Provost Meredith Hay with making the new plans possible.
When the law passed last year, Shelton called it "extraordinarily devastating" and he vowed to achieve "benefits parity" for members of the campus community. (Read Shelton's memo to campus regarding benefits eligibility.)
It was with his support, and that of the provost, that Human Resources launched its efforts, under the leadership of project director Linda Charlip, director of human resources analytics, to find alternative insurance options for employees with domestic partners. Three insurance provider evaluation and selection committees, made up of faculty, staff and appointed personnel from across campus, came together to examine the possibilities.
"It's a matter of values really. To have that many people disenfranchised, it was heartbreaking last fall to watch that happen," Vaillancourt said. "I think it took courage on their (Shelton's and Hay's) part to say yes, we're going to do this (establish our own plans) because this is the right thing to do, and if we're going to be able to attract the amazing people that we need to make this place work, then we're going to have to make sure that they have the benefits that they need."
The new plans will make the UA the only state University to provide insurance coverage for domestic partners, Vaillancourt said.
The same law that excluded domestic partners from receiving state benefits also redefined a "dependent" to exclude all people over age 18, including disabled individuals, unless they were enrolled as full-time students and under the age of 23. Previously, exceptions were made for disabled dependants over 18, and full-time students were covered up to age 25. At the UA, the definition change would have eliminated coverage for an estimated 134 dependents over 23 and 34 disabled dependents, Vaillancourt said.
However, in response to federal health care legislation, the state has now revised its definition of a dependent to include those under the age of 26. It also has revised the definition to include children who were disabled before age 19, who continue to be disabled and who have been in the custody of an employee since before they turned 19.
While legislative action helped ensure employees with adult or disabled dependents would retain coverage, it was the University's actions alone that made it possible for the UA to continue offering domestic partner coverage.
For some, however, the announcement of the new plans came too late.
Hoefle, who served on the Human Resources committee that studied vision insurance, said she has seen colleagues with domestic partners leave the University over the past few months for fear that they would no longer have insurance coverage for their families come Oct. 1.
"The risk of not knowing was too high," she said. "There's been a lot of concern and a lot of anxiety and a lot of people questioning, ‘Can I live in Arizona anymore?'"
Vaillancourt said the fact that the University was able to offer benefits to domestic partners in the past has been a significant recruitment and retention tool.
She said some potential faculty members actually declined UA offers as a result of the Arizona law, while existing employees worried about what the change would mean for their futures.
"The e-mails that we got, the stories, it was horrible, heartbreaking," Vaillancourt said. "People were so afraid. I remember one guy saying, 'We're looking at selling our house to pay for our medical costs.' It was just terrible."
Hoefle said she's grateful to Shelton for making sure the University didn't take an "enormous step back."
"I think he's an amazing ally to the LGBTQ people," she said.
Employees with domestic partners will be able to sign up for the new plans during the next benefits open enrollment period, which likely will begin sometime in August. The new benefits will go into effect on Oct. 1.
Employees will pay the same premiums paid by those on ADOA plans. Details on the plans will be posted on the Human Resources website when they become available, Vaillancourt said.