ACLU Challenges Michigan Domestic Partner Health Care Ban

January 05, 2012

DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit today asking the court to strike down a new state law that bans many public entities from providing health care insurance to the domestic partners of their employees. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of school teachers, city and county workers and their domestic partners who will lose their health insurance as a result of the law.

This is not about politics or ideology for us,” said Peter Ways, an Ann Arbor Public Schools teacher whose partner will lose his benefits. “This is about real families who are facing the real consequences of discriminatory laws. Just like our colleagues whose families will continue to receive health insurance, we want to care for our families.”

The four couples named in the lawsuit are in long-term committed relationships. Several of the domestic partners need ongoing medical care for chronic conditions. Barbara Ramber, for instance, has glaucoma and arthritis and faces potential blindness if she can’t access care, and Gerardo Ascheri has high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

The other couples also worry about finding comprehensive and affordable insurance coverage. Carol Kennedy anticipates having to pay $800 per month for comprehensive coverage because of a family history of breast cancer. Peter Ways and Joe Breakey are considering moving back to Washington because finding comprehensive coverage for Joe would be extremely expensive for the couple.

“Although justified by the Governor as a cost-cutting measure, the numbers don’t hold up,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “The reality is that the legislation was intended to disenfranchise LGBT families. When a key policy priority has been to attract top talent and resources to the state, our elected officials have sent a clear message that Michigan is out of step with the kinds of public policies that attract talent and grow our economy.”

The lawsuit charges that the new law discriminates by categorically denying domestic partners access to benefits and violates the constitutional right to equal protection by forcing gay and lesbian employees in committed relationships to carry the financial hardship and anxiety of being uninsured, while allowing heterosexual couples to marry and receive family health protections.

In addition, the law only bars domestic partners from receiving health care coverage, while allowing government employers to offer these benefits to all other family members, including parents, siblings, uncles and cousins.

“It’s unconstitutional for the state of Michigan to deprive a small number of workers of the means to take care of their loved ones, when other, similarly situated workers do have access to family coverage,” said Amanda C. Goad, staff attorney for the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project. “In an economic downturn, the state should be passing laws to make it easier for families to take care of each other, not to take protections away.”

Proponents point to the “high cost” of domestic partner health care coverage as the motivating force to enact such a law. However, an analysis of programs across the state proves these numbers to be wildly inaccurate. In fact, studies show that domestic partner health care coverage, in addition to attracting and retaining the best employees, costs well under one percent of the health care budget of public employers who voluntarily provide these benefits. Additionally, unlike married couples, domestic partners must pay taxes to the state on their health insurance benefits – revenue that the state would lose under the new law.

Prior to passage of the challenged law, many cities, counties, and school districts in Michigan made the business decision to allow coverage of employees’ domestic partners. Similarly, corporations throughout Michigan and the nation have determined that providing domestic partner benefits to employees is essential to remaining competitive and attracting and retaining top talent. In fact, a recent Human Rights Campaign report concluded: “The higher a company ranks on Fortune magazine’s list of the most successful businesses, the more likely it is to provide comprehensive protections and benefits to LGBT employees.”

In September 2011, a United States Court of Appeals struck down a similar Arizona law banning benefits for unmarried partners of state workers.

The families are represented by Goad and John A. Knight of the ACLU LGBT Project, Michael J. Steinberg and Jay Kaplan of the ACLU of Michigan, and Amy E. Crawford and Bradley H. Weidenhammer of Kirkland & Ellis LLP.

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