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Woman sues for benefits for same-gender spouse

By Joe Davidson
Friday, January 22, 2010; A18

A woman married to a woman is suing the Office of Personnel Management because it is blocking her wife from receiving federal health insurance benefits available to spouses.

OPM has refused to obey a federal judge's administrative order telling the agency to rescind a directive to Karen Golinski's health insurance company, Blue Cross Blue Shield, that said her spouse is not eligible to receive family benefits.

Agency officials reluctantly refused to obey the order, even though the Obama administration supports legislation that would allow benefits for same-gender partners of federal employees and the repeal of a law that defines marriage as a union between a man and woman.

"OPM must administer the FEHBP [Federal Employees Health Benefits Program] in a lawful manner, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) has advised the OPM that providing those benefits would violate the so-called 'Defense of Marriage Act,' " OPM General Counsel Elaine Kaplan said in a written statement last month.

Golinski, a lawyer employed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, wed in California when the state permitted same-sex marriages. Her lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Wednesday, asks the court to direct OPM to obey the order Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the 9th circuit, previously issued in his administrative capacity.

"It's a bit shocking that we've reached this point with the Obama administration. Where is our 'fierce advocate' for LGBT rights?" said Jennifer C. Pizer, National Marriage Project director for Lambda Legal and co-counsel for Golinski. "Simply defying his orders is a slap in the face to Karen and the entire LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] community and bizarrely disrespects the judiciary. At a minimum, federal courts have the power and responsibility to end discrimination against their own employees."

Tackling drug costs

Attempting to reduce health-care costs for federal employees, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) introduced legislation Thursday that would provide greater scrutiny over pharmacy benefit managers serving the government's workforce. Pharmacy benefit managers are companies that act as middlemen between health insurers and drug companies.

Under the legislation, the Office of Personnel Management would have greater oversight authority over prescription drug contracting and pricing methods. The oversight provisions include a requirement that the managers -- CVS Caremark is the big one -- return to health plans 99 percent of all rebates, incentives and other money received from pharmaceutical manufacturers for federal employee business. That could lower insurance premiums for federal consumers. The legislation also would cap prescription drug prices paid by FEHBP at the amount of the average manufacturer price.

Lynch, who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia, said his bill would "safeguard against the potential waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars, and most importantly, better ensure that our federal workers and retirees are receiving safe, high-quality and low-cost prescription drugs."

CVS Caremark provides services for most FEHBP enrollees through their insurance companies. It is being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for unfair business practices, such as steering consumer business to CVS outlets.

Medicare premium rise

Millions of Americans, including retired federal, state and local government retirees, got unwelcome news from Uncle Sam this month when he jacked up their monthly Medicare premiums, but not those of Social Security recipients, by almost 15 percent.

Annuitants under the federal Civil Service Retirement System are among those who do not get Social Security payments. Their Medicare Part B premiums rose to $110.50, from $96.40.

Federal law prohibits a premium increase for Social Security recipients when they do not get a cost-of-living increase. Those who do not get Social Security don't have that protection. The Medicare Premium Fairness Act, which was overwhelmingly approved by the House in September, would eliminate that inequity.

A coalition of 20 organizations, including the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, representing public sector workers and retirees sent letters to all senators in November urging them "to correct this unfair situation by the time January 2010 checks are issued."

That didn't happen, but it's not too late for the Senate to act.

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