Monday, September 8, 2008

Despite legal battle, few same-sex couples enrolling for state benefits | | Press & Sun-Bulletin

Despite legal battle, few same-sex couples enrolling for state benefits | | Press & Sun-Bulletin

By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau

ALBANY -- Expensive, taxpayer-funded lawsuits over whether New York should recognize same-sex marriages from other states could linger for years, but so far few gay couples are taking advantage of the state's expanded rights, state records show.

The state Department of Civil Service said it was aware of only 33 same-sex married couples who have signed up for the state's health insurance since it extended the benefits to them on May 1, 2007.

The number is a tiny fraction of the 589,000 families who work for state or local governments and are enrolled in the state's health insurance program.

Gay rights activists said the few enrollees debunks the argument by anti-gay-marriage groups that taxpayers shouldn't be funding benefits for same-sex couples because New York doesn't allow for same-sex marriages.

"The idea that there's some kind of revolutionarily, highly costly, dramatic change going on is really a fallacy," said Susan Sommer, senior counsel for Lambda Legal, a gay-rights group.

In May 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer ordered that same-sex couples married out of state would be eligible to enroll in the state's health insurance program. A year later, Gov. David Paterson expanded the benefits for married gay couples to include all 1,324 rights in New York that were previously afforded only to heterosexual couples.

Paterson's directive sparked a lawsuit from the national Alliance Defense Fund and several state lawmakers, who argued Paterson didn't have the right to unilaterally expand benefits for same-sex couples.

This week, a state Supreme Court judge rejected the lawsuit, but the group said they plan to appeal.

Stephen Hayford, a leader of the Coalition to Save Marriage in New York, said that even though the number of enrollees from same-sex couples is small, the state shouldn't be paying for their benefits. The state did not have an estimate on how much the same-sex benefits are costing taxpayers.

"The issue isn't how much is being expended, but that it's inappropriate to spend anything at all," he said, adding that "I think it's curious that the advocates of same-sex marriage are pushing so hard for something that clearly not many same-sex partners are actually taking advantage of."

State records also show that the number of same-sex domestic partners who work in the public sector in New York and receive health-care benefits is also relatively small.

The number of same-sex domestic partners enrolled in the state's health insurance program is 1,267 -- compared to a 3,614 heterosexual domestic partnerships.

Also, the number of same-sex domestic partnerships that receive state health insurance has increased by just 225 since March 2007, according to the Civil Service Department.

Paterson based his decision on a Feb. 1 ruling by an appellate court that backed giving equal benefits to a Monroe County couple, one of whom sued Monroe Community College after the school refused to provide health insurance for her partner, whom she married legally in Canada.

Same-sex marriages are legal in Canada, South Africa, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. They are also legal in Massachusetts and California.

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