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City to consider covering domestic partners as part of city’s health insurance plan; commissioners now qualify for city coverage, thanks to Obamacare

Lawrence city commissioners soon will get to weigh in on the issue of domestic partnerships versus traditional marriages.

After digging through a few more documents related to the city’s proposed budget, I found a memo detailing changes to the city’s health insurance plan. One recently implemented change and one proposed change caught my eye. The recently implemented change: City commissioners are now eligible to be on the city’s health insurance plan. (More on that in a moment.) The proposed change: Staff members are recommending that domestic partners of city employees be eligible to join the city’s health insurance plan, just as spouses of city employees are eligible.

Lori Carnahan, human resources manager for the city, said several city employees have been asking about the availability of a domestic partner benefit. The city recently conducted a survey of its employees, and of the 146 respondents, 30 percent said they would use the domestic partner benefit.

“It is an issue that my colleagues in the human resources industry have discussed the concept of for probably six to eight years,” Carnahan said. “But the discussion really has been increasing over time.”

Obviously there are several large, international private companies that offer domestic partnership benefits. But I’m not sure how many area governments have adopted the practice. Douglas County approved a similar health plan benefit for domestic partners in 2011.

As far as the logistics of this go, the city is well-positioned to deal with it. In May 2007, Lawrence became the first city in the state to create a domestic partnership registry. The registry allows domestic partners — both gay and heterosexual couples — to file paperwork with the city clerk’s office that provides evidence they are living in a true domestic partnership. The registry then can be used by insurance companies to verify that a domestic partnership exists.

The city will use that registry to verify domestic partnerships involving city employees. The registry requires that partners share a common permanent residence, have agreed to be in a “relationship of mutual interdependence,” both “contribute to the maintenance and support of the household,” are not married to a third individual or are a member of a domestic partnership with a third individual, are 18 years or older, have the mental capacity to enter into a contract and are not related by blood in any way that would prevent a marriage in the state.

Carnahan said the city’s insurance plan manager — the city is technically self-insured but hires a professional company to help manage the operation — has said the change is not expected to create any increased underwriting costs. The city will have to comply with a federal law that does not allow insurance premiums of domestic partners to be paid for with pre-tax dollars — married couples can have their premiums deducted from their paychecks before taxes. But Carnahan said the city has the necessary software to accomplish the task.

Now all that is left is to determine whether city commissioners have an interest in creating the new policy. Commissioners will get briefed on insurance issues at today’s budget study session, which begins at 3:30 p.m. But commissioners don’t take formal actions at study sessions, so I would expect the issue to come up at a future City Commission meeting.

•••

Beginning June 1, city commissioners became eligible to enroll in the city’s health insurance program. They have the Affordable Care Act — or Obamacare — partially to thank for that.

City commissioners previously had not been eligible for the health care benefit because they are not considered full-time city employees. But the Affordable Care Act mandates that large employers generally offer health insurance to employees who average 30 hours per week for a year.

Do city commissioners work 30 hours per week? Well, that’s tough to say because city commissioners don’t punch a time clock.

Carnahan said her staff decided that making city commissioners eligible for the health care benefit would be the safest way to ensure the city was in compliance with the new federal law.

It is unclear how many commissioners may take advantage of the new benefit, but it is a significant benefit.

If a city commissioner wanted to insure just himself, it would cost only $5 per pay period — or $130 per year — to be covered under the city’s plan, which is considered to be a good one. That’s the same rate all city employees pay for single coverage.

Commissioners also can choose to have their families and spouses covered under the plan. Those rates — which are the same for all city employees — range from $69 a pay period to $118 per pay period, depending on the type of coverage.

City commissioners currently receive a $9,000 per year salary, while the mayor receives a $10,000 per year salary. However, commissioners in April said they wanted to have a discussion about possibly raising those salary levels.

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