OPM opposes domestic partnership benefits bill

A top official at the Office of Personnel Management told a congressional panel on Wednesday that extending federal health and retirement benefits to the domestic partners of same-sex couples could lead to insurance fraud.

Howard Weizmann, OPM deputy director, said the agency opposes a bill (S. 2521) offering such benefits to gay and lesbian federal employees' partners because OPM requires state-issued marriage certificates to prove that heterosexual couples are married in case of a question or dispute -- and no comparable documentation exists for many same-sex couples. He said OPM would have to rely on sworn affidavits from couples in long-term committed relationships, and that some might not report the end of a relationship to keep insurance benefits.

The legislation also would ensure gay and lesbian employees abide by federal laws on nepotism and financial disclosure.

Other witnesses before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee disputed OPM's rationale for opposing the legislation. "I think it's really unfair of OPM to suggest there's some kind of increased fraud risk by adding this benefit," said National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley. "I'm totally missing why that would be stated, much less thought of."

Yvette Burton, a business development executive for IBM Corp., which offers same-sex partner benefits said that affidavits had proved more than adequate, and the company requires couples to obtain legal documentation of their relationship when state law makes it possible, for example, in states like California and Massachusetts where same-sex marriage is legal.

Members of the committee were skeptical that fraud would be widespread, pointing to the large number of private sector companies -- including more than half of Fortune 500 companies -- that have domestic partnership benefits. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said verification systems those companies and the state of Maine in its wide-ranging domestic partnership program use should provide models for the federal government and eliminate concerns about fraud.

"In looking at the firms at which you worked, Aetna has DP benefits and has retained those benefits for a number of years," Collins said to Weizmann. "If, in fact, these were not advantageous benefits for the private sector to have, don't you think they would have done away with those benefits?"

But Weizmann insisted that the threat of fraud is real, saying wrongdoing could go undetected because companies do not pay very much attention to domestic partnership programs.

"I don't know that anyone in this room knows the degree to which companies monitor relationships that go forward," he said. "I know that when benefits don't cost very much and aren't utilized very much, they don't get a lot of attention… . The federal government is much larger, and has a much stronger fiduciary obligation to the taxpayer to ensure that those benefits are delivered accurately."

Weizmann suggested that the 2007 movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, about two heterosexual New York firefighters who pretend to be a gay couple to ensure that one of them will be able to pass his pension benefits down to his children, indicated that fraud could be widespread.

But others at the hearing argued that the fraud debate was a distraction from real questions of fairness and equality.

Frank Hartigan, a deputy regional director for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, said he personally had experienced the difficulties of being a gay federal employee. Among the benefits same-sex partners are not eligible for are relocation payments, making it much more expensive for gay couples to move elsewhere for a new federal job.

"If I was starting out in today's job market, would I take a job with the federal government knowing what I know about domestic partnership benefits? I believe I would look elsewhere," Hartigan said.

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