By Lisa Rein and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Partners of gay and lesbian Maryland state employees and their children would be entitled to health benefits under a proposal announced yesterday by Gov. Martin O'Malley.
If the plan is approved by a legislative committee, Maryland would join the District and 15 states that offer health insurance to domestic partners, through union contracts, executive orders, laws or court decisions.
At least two dozen private-sector employers, including the Discovery Channel and Constellation Energy, have similar policies, along with numerous local governments from Montgomery County to Baltimore.
"It's a practice already in place at many private businesses throughout the state, and it's the right thing to do," O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said.
The legislative committee, composed of Democrats generally sympathetic to the policy, is expected to approve the change. Adamec said it would not apply to unmarried heterosexual couples. The initiative is expected to cost $1 million to $3 million a year, depending on how many employees enroll.
Gay rights advocates estimate that fewer than 1 percent of Maryland's 67,000 state and University of Maryland workers will sign up for domestic partner benefits.
But they said the proposed regulation, which would take effect in May, is nonetheless a victory in their piece-by-piece quest for legal rights now denied gay and lesbian couples.
"We may not have everything yet," said Kate Runyon, executive director of Equality Maryland, the state's largest gay advocacy group. "But sometimes it's important to go forward incrementally."
The General Assembly approved two other incremental measures for same-sex couples last year, giving them the same rights as spouses to make hospital and nursing-home visits, end-of-life choices, and other medical decisions, in addition to rights to joint property ownership.
Despite a big push by advocates, legislation to legalize same-sex marriage or civil unions stalled in a Senate committee last night and looks unlikely to budge this year.
O'Malley (D) implemented health benefits for same-sex employees in Baltimore when he was mayor.
In the two years he has been governor, "there have been many questions about his support as time has gone on," Runyon said, which prompted her group to launch a campaign of "firm and gentle conversations and urging" in recent months.
Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) said the University of Maryland has reported trouble recruiting some top-notch faculty members because the school could not offer health care to same-sex domestic partners. Most of the university's competitors offer benefits.
"For the relatively few state employees for whom this will apply, it's critical," he said. "They've been unable to get affordable health care, and they've been living in fear of illness striking their partners."