One Simple Step for Equality

States prove that the federal government can offer domestic partner benefits with ease

States prove that the federal government can offer domestic partner benefits with ease, write Winnie Stachelberg, Josh Rosenthal, and Claire Stein-Ross.

Standard & Poor's headquarters, located in New York's financial district. (AP/Karly Domb Sadof)
Standard & Poor's headquarters, located in New York's financial district. (AP/Karly Domb Sadof)

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Health care looms large on the agenda as the nation looks toward a new Congress and president in 2009. Health care costs are growing faster than even energy costs, rising $45 billion more than energy in the past eight years. Americans with chronic diseases and other pre-existing conditions often wonder if their treatment will be covered by insurance, or if they will be able to afford insurance at all. And almost 46 million Americans still live without health insurance coverage, while many more get by without adequate access to care.

The federal government could take one simple, but essential step that would immediately expand quality coverage to millions of Americans: extending health benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, who are twice as likely to be uninsured as their heterosexual counterparts. Federal employees in same-sex partnerships currently have no access to benefits for their partners. Domestic partner benefits present an opportunity for the federal government to improve the quality of its workforce, and indicate its acceptance of all American families.

Congress is currently considering the Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act (H.R. 4838/S. 2521), which would extend these benefits, along with the other rights and responsibilities of married couples, to federal employees in same-sex domestic partnerships. Congressional passage of this bill would place the federal government among the ranks of thousands of private companies, hundreds of municipalities, and 15 states and the District of Columbia that have already put such policies into action.*

This report examines the experiences of these states, which have extended benefits to same-sex domestic partners without complications or added expenses. In fact, many have actually been able to attract higher quality staff. The states show that a domestic partner benefit program for federal employees would likely have the following characteristics:

  • Low enrollment: Few employees will enroll in the expanded benefit program. For example, only 0.7 percent of Connecticut states employees took advantage of the domestic partner program for same-sex couples.
  • Minimal costs: The benefits would create only a marginal added cost. In Iowa, for example, only 0.5 percent of benefit spending goes toward domestic partners. Even this percentage is higher than we expect the federal government would experience, since many states include both same-sex and different-sex partners in their domestic partner benefit programs, unlike the proposed federal program.
  • Higher retention and recruitment rates: Gay and lesbian employees often cite benefit programs as a key factor in their decision to leave or stay at a job. As more private-sector employers offer domestic partner benefits, states such as Vermont and Washington have found that matching this benefit helps them to attract the best workforce
  • Strong public support: When Arizona considered offering domestic partner benefits in 2006, 787 of the 913 public comments concerning the decision were supportive of extending the benefits. Recent polling also shows that 69 percent of Americans believe that same-sex partners should receive benefits.

The Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act offers an easy choice to legislators. There are both practical and ethical arguments for extending benefits to domestic partners—including the fact that a majority of Americans believe it is the right thing to do. And the experiences of state governments clearly show that domestic partner benefits do not exact a significant cost on the employer.

* Vermont, New York, Oregon, California, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, Washington, New Mexico, New Jersey, Montana, Illinois, Alaska, Arizona, and Hawaii

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Winnie Stachelberg

Former Executive Vice President, External Affairs