Study reveals unfair health benefits for same-sex couples

Danielle Toll/Daily
University alum Gilia Smith discusses her study on Michigan universities' faculty health benefits for same-sex couples at the SACUA meeting on Monday, March 7 in the Fleming Administration Building. Buy this photo

BY MICHELE NAROV
Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 7, 2011

When Michigan voters cast their ballots in 2004 to institute a state constitutional change to ban on same-sex marriages and unions, University alum Gilia Smith felt personal ramifications from the legislation.

“My partner and I were living in Michigan when (Proposal) 2 was passed, and it was very disappointing (to us) because at the time I knew it would have repercussions for people in our community,” Smith said in an interview after presenting a recent study at yesterday’s Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs meeting.

Smith spoke before the lead faculty governing body about the findings of her study on same-sex health benefits for faculty and staff at various universities in the state. Channeling her individual experience into a statewide study of three universities in Michigan, Smith interviewed faculty members of all sexual orientations to assess their opinions of health benefit policies.

“I was very personally motivated on that level,” she said.

In her presentation, Smith did not mention the names of each institution studied but said each university — including the University of Michigan — has health benefit policies with some level of discrimination against same-sex couples.

Smith said the measure that amended Michigan’s constitution in 2004 drastically changed health care benefits for same-sex couples across the state. Before the change, same-sex couples were recognized as domestic partners in benefit programs. However, this was ruled unconstitutional following the 2004 vote.

Smith explained that after the ruling, higher education institutions struggled to draw and retain LGBTQ employees in the new, unwelcoming climate.

Smith said this resulted in the establishment of a loophole that allowed faculty members to designate one other beneficiary on their health plan. This option is currently open to both same-sex and heterosexual unmarried couples.

During her presentation, Smith said the new beneficiary program that universities set up had unintended side effects. The new policy, she said, dismantled rights and privileges traditionally associated with marriage because of the high number of unmarried heterosexual couples receiving benefits.

Many taxpayers voted for the 2004 ballot initiative, Smith said, because they believed they shouldn’t have to financially support same-sex couples. However, she explained that the beneficiary program designed to attract LGBTQ faculty actually increases the cost of health programs.

Additionally, Smith said the fairness of the policies varies based on the institution.

“It is easy to manipulate (the policies) and create restricted universe of eligibility,” she said.

Smith pointed to institutions that use age caps to restrict graduate students or eligibility restrictions to limit the number of participants in the program. She also said same-sex couples have to wait longer than heterosexual couples for their benefits.

Smith said though the University doesn’t have an age cap, it still restricts eligibility by enforcing a rule that requires partners to live together for six-months.

She added that these regulations wouldn’t be tolerated if they were based on another demographic like race.

“Would it be admissible to cap the number of benefits for other minority groups?” she asked.

SACUA Chair Ed Rothman, a professor of statistics, agreed with Smith at the meeting that these restrictions are "not fair."

At the end of the presentation, Smith suggested University administrators consider moving LGBTQ issues to the forefront of discussions on faculty diversity. She said school officials often don’t realize how faculty members are discriminated against as a result of institutional policy.

“My aim in coming to talk to you today was emphasizing that this is an issue of fairness and equality,” she said.

Because there wasn’t a broad understanding of the impact this constitutional amendment would have, Smith said, she felt compelled to promote awareness through her study. She said she plans to continue to make presentations and publish her findings within the next few years to make the information more readily available.

Smith said though the long-term goal of the University should be to create an atmosphere where LGBTQ individuals feel comfortable, short-term changes can have a major influence.

“It wouldn’t cost very much for the institutions to do the right thing, the fair thing,” she said. “And that is to make same-sex heath benefits as accessible as they are for married folks.”