By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2008
Gay rights advocates and opponents clashed yesterday over a new regulation in Maryland that defines domestic partnerships in state law.
The rule, approved 12 to 4 by a joint House-Senate committee that oversees regulations, was devised by the Maryland Insurance Administration late last year to comply with a law requiring insurance companies to offer coverage to domestic partners if their employers ask for it. The law took effect Jan. 1.
The law's sponsors, trying to overcome resistance in the Senate last year, stripped out a definition of who would qualify for benefits. The standard created by the insurance agency met with criticism yesterday, presaging a possible split in the General Assembly in the coming debate over same-sex marriage.
To qualify for coverage under the new regulation, domestic partners must be at least 18, can be straight or gay, and must have lived together for at least six consecutive months. The definition incensed Republican lawmakers, the Maryland Catholic Conference and a group promoting traditional values, which said it sanctifies cohabitation by straight couples.
"Now you can just say, 'I break with thee,' and you're gone, you can enter into a new relationship," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil), noting that Maryland law requires married couples to separate for a year before seeking a divorce.
Added Doug Stiegler of the Maryland Family Protection Lobby: "This legalizes cohabitation. It's a huge cultural change."
Although they did not attack same-sex couples directly, opponents said the state insurance agency should not be in the business of telling insurance companies who qualifies for medical coverage.
"You're trying to prescribe a standard for getting into the [insurance] system, but the carriers already have their own guidelines," said David R. Brinkley (R-Frederick), Senate minority leader, who is an insurance agent. Many large employers offer coverage to same-sex couples; the law encourages small firms to follow suit.
The Democratic-dominated committee, however, followed the guidance of Insurance Commissioner Ralph S. Tyler, who was appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). Tyler told lawmakers that the law is unambiguous in requiring a definition of who is eligible for coverage. He said the new regulation is modeled on the standards used by the large employers Brinkley referred to.
"These are not things we made up out of whole cloth," Tyler said.
The new rule says couples can verify their union with three documents, among them a will, proof of a joint bank account and driver's licenses listing a common address. "The statute is not for roommate relationships," Tyler said.
After Brinkley expressed concern that an insurer would continue to cover a couple whose relationship had ended, Tyler said, "If the criteria [for coverage] can no longer be satisfied, that carrier would no longer offer coverage."
The regulation will be in effect for a maximum of 180 days while the insurance administration tweaks a set of permanent rules. Tyler said his staff might amend the regulations to reduce the number of documents to two and add another form of acceptable proof.
If yesterday's clashes were an indication, the debate will be fierce over bills to legalize same-sex marriage and to ban it in the state constitution.
The regulation "is being used to polarize groups and create factions," said Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt (R-Dorchester). "This issue is so controversial."
But Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), who is gay, said he was mystified about why the regulations "raised red flags."
"I wish this got us closer to marriage equality, but it doesn't," he said.