Saturday, August 4, 2007

Gay, lesbian partners pass on county health benefits not without tax consequences

Gay, lesbian partners pass on county health benefits
By Robert M. Miraldi , Freeman staff

KINGSTON - It was early March when the Ulster County Legislature decided same-sex partners of county employees were eligible for county-provided health coverage.

Five months later, with the enrollment period over, only six people have signed up for the benefits.

"It's not shocking," said Maureen Ford, a mental health specialist for the county who advocated for the policy. "I predicted a few months ago that less than 10 people would accept this. The only people who will take these benefits are those who can't get it any other way."

Ford said her partner did not sign up for the benefits because of a costly federal tax law. Under the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, an employee who is not legally married cannot obtain health benefits for his or her partner without having the value of the health insurance policy added to their taxable income.

Married employees can carry spouses on their health plans without paying extra taxes.

"There are over a thousand small and not-so-small ways to legally discriminate," Ford said. "The only way to get the benefit tax-free is to be married."

Because New York does not allow gay marriage, people like Ford's partner can't avoid the tax burden that comes with the county's health plan.

Paul Cates, public education director for the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian & Gay Rights Project, said Ulster County "should be commended for writing the benefit," even if the tax law is causing some people to pass on it.

"It's not their fault that the federal policy counts the benefit as a taxable income," Cates said. "This is a tax burden others don't have to pay. It is frustrating, and it just goes to show how same-sex couples are harmed when they are not able to marry."

Ford said some of the county employees who are using the new health benefit for their partners are doing so out of necessity. One such employee, she said, signed up because her partner was diagnosed with breast cancer and couldn't afford to buy health insurance on her own.

Asked if she was frustrated or angry about the tax burden that comes with the new benefits, Ford said: "I don't feel that way. I'm very grateful to the county for doing this. It was forward-thinking on their part, and I hope they set a precedent to other counties."

"It's important to point something out," said Susan Sommer, senior counsel for Lambda, a legal organization that works for the civil rights of gay men, lesbians and people with HIV and AIDS. "This is great, and it's important for Ulster County and for same-sex gay and lesbian couples. They deserve basic employee rights, but discrimination persists."

Said Ford: "It's not the county's fault that the ... government continue(s) to discriminate."

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