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County eyes issue surrounding insurance for domestic partners

by: Photo By Tony Ahern - Sign indicates the future location of the Madras Bike and Skate Park, at H and Marshall streets.


   The recent interest in Jefferson County's policy on offering insurance coverage to domestic partners is kind of a "tempest in a teapot," according to interim County Administrator Matthew Birnie.
   In response to an inquiry about health insurance coverage by the boyfriend of an employee, the Jefferson County Commission earlier this month asked staff to define the county's policy. At the commission's July 14 meeting, Birnie said that county currently offers add-on insurance, at a price, for spouses, families, and same-sex domestic partners.
   According to Birnie, a 1998 Oregon Court of Appeals decision, Tanner vs. Oregon Health Sciences University, mandates that Oregon counties make insurance coverage available to unmarried same-sex partners, provided they meet certain requirements.
   As a result of the 1998 ruling, the Association of Oregon Counties has listed Jefferson County as offering the insurance coverage since 1999.
   "We're listed as offering it, but no one has taken advantage of it," said Birnie. Because of the high cost of adding coverage for partners, "We're seeing people give up insurance more often than come on board."
   For a single employee to add coverage for another person would cost an additional $132 per month, Kathie Rohde, county accounting manager noted.
   The county caps its insurance contribution at $650 per month, so for traditional coverage for a family, an employee must kick in $475 per month. A single employee pays $40 per month out-of-pocket for the county's least expensive individual coverage.
   "There are so many what-ifs," said Rohde, about the possibility of covering unmarried domestic partners. "It becomes a taxable benefit to an employee when you're covering someone you can't claim on your tax return."
   As the policy stands, "A same-sex domestic partner is eligible to apply for coverage," Birnie said.
   The partners must sign a declaration that they:
   * Are each 18 years of age or older;
   * Share a close personal relationship and are responsible for each other's common welfare;
   * Are each other's sole domestic partner;
   * Are not legally married to anyone nor have had another domestic partner within the prior six months;
   * Are not related by blood closer than would bar marriage in the state of Oregon;
   * Jointly share the same regular and permanent residence with the intent to do so indefinitely; and
   * Are jointly financially responsible for basic living expenses, medical expenses, and other expenses of maintaining a household.
   Commissioners asked if coverage could be offered to unmarried, heterosexual domestic partners, or two family members living together.
   "With married couples, there's a legal contract," said County Counsel Jacki Haggerty. "The problem for the board is how do we structure a test (for other domestic partners)."
   "I'm more worried about the changing boyfriend, girlfriend thing," commented Commissioner Mary Zemke.
   Haggerty said the easy way around the matter is to only offer insurance for employees.
   The commission directed staff to do further research into the issue to find out what the costs of extending insurance would be, what other counties do, and what the criteria should be, and come back with a report, Birnie said.