WASHINGTON – It could take an act of Congress for Lisa Polyak to get her partner of 24 years covered by her health insurance plan.
It’s not because of her insurance company: CareFirst of Maryland recently said it will offer health coverage, at no extra cost, to the domestic partners of individuals who already have a family plan.
It’s because Polyak is a federal employee.
The Office of Personnel Management says that under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, lesbian and gay relationships are excluded from coverage.
The only way to change government policy would be to repeal the law, said a spokesman for OPM, which administers benefits for government employees. The agency declined further comment.
So even though CareFirst, which is one of the federal government’s insurance providers in Maryland, offers domestic partners’ benefits, Baltimore resident Polyak, 43, and her partner Gita Deane, 42, aren’t eligible.
“It’s nutso,” said Polyak, a civilian employee at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The issue of domestic partners’ benefits was very much a part of the debate recently when the House of Representatives rejected a constitutional amendment that would have banned gay marriage. Opponents of the amendment argued that it could be used to roll back domestic partners’ laws already in place in some states.
Polyak’s case reflects just how far the federal government now lags behind the private sector, where domestic partners’ coverage is a growing trend.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay-rights organization, over 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies now offer health benefits to same-sex couples. Public employees in 10 states and more than 64 cities and counties can also receive domestic partners’ coverage.
While Maryland does not provide domestic partners benefits for state employees, coverage for same-sex partners is offered in Montgomery and Howard counties, as well as Baltimore, College Park, Greenbelt, Hyattsville, Rockville and Takoma Park.
Polyak estimates that the federal ban on domestic partners’ benefits costs her an extra $3,000 a year for deductibles and a separate plan for Deane, boosting their total annual health care bill to about $7,000. The couple has two daughters, ages 5 and 8, who are covered under Polyak’s plan.
And Polyak considers herself “very lucky.”
“I can afford to pay that and we can still eat,” she said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for the rest of the world.”
Polyak has a vested interest in the gay-marriage debate as she and Deane are also part of the group of eight lesbian and gay couples, and one gay man whose partner died recently, who are suing Maryland for the right to marry. The case, Polyak and Deane vs. Conaway, was filed in Baltimore in July; a court date has yet to be scheduled.
By her own admission, Polyak is an unlikely activist. A government employee for 18 years, she said, her political “involvements” were limited to reading newspapers and writing checks. Then, last year she and Deane attended a forum on same-sex marriage sponsored by Equality Maryland, the state’s gay civil rights organization.
That meeting led to a trip to Annapolis, where Polyak testified in favor of a bill giving same-sex couples the right to make medical decisions for each other.
The bill did not pass, but Polyak was encouraged.
“We met other people like us who wanted . . . health care for their family,” she said. “It’s really powerful to tell your story to people who might be listening.”
Polyak is not giving up. She has recently taken to lobbying her congressman, Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, to support a bill to allow domestic partners’ benefits for federal employees. The bill, known as the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act, is introduced each session by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and routinely gets stalled in committee.
Dan Furmansky, director of Equality Maryland, admits that the bill is not likely to pass with President Bush in the White House.
Still, he said, “I’d like to see more of our Maryland Congress members advocating for the tremendous number of federal employees who need domestic partners’ benefits.
“This issue along with other issues, like property rights and medical decision-making, would be moot if the country would allow marriage licenses for gay couples.”
-30- CNS 10-08-04