Officials say cost of domestic partner benefits is affordable
Senators and witnesses at a hearing on Thursday said that extending employee benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian federal employees was a matter of equal pay that could be addressed affordably.
Because much of employee compensation comes in the form of benefits like health insurance, being unable to extend those to their domestic partners means that gay and lesbian federal employees are "essentially paid less than everyone else is," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., the chief sponsor of the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act during the hearing. Lieberman, who is the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he planned to bring legislation to the Senate floor by the end of the year.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who sponsored the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act in the House, said that during her 10 years in Congress, the inability to add her partner, Lauren, to her health care insurance as her heterosexual colleagues have been able to do for their spouses had cost the couple "five figures."
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said adding health insurance coverage and survivor benefits for the domestic partners of federal employees would cost $56 million in 2010, an amount equivalent to 0.2 percent of the total annual cost of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. But he said those expenses would be nominal compared to the money the government spends on other programs, including relocation, retention and recruitment programs, which cost agencies $207 million in fiscal 2007.
"This is one of the lowest-cost options you could give us," Berry said. "At the same time, it's an incredibly powerful tool for its price….I know we will be able to find efficiencies to offset this over the course of the administration."
Lieberman said he agreed the costs seemed comparatively reasonable and it was helpful that Berry had offered to find savings to cover the cost of extending domestic partner benefits; otherwise Congress would have to appropriate funds to support that expansion.
William Hendrix, who leads the gay and lesbian employee affinity group at Dow Chemical Co., said that for Dow, domestic partner benefits had been an effective recruitment tool because younger workers looked at such policies, and those permitting flexible work schedules, as indications of a company's culture.
But Berry also cited a desire to keep down expenses as a reason not to extend the legislation to cover unmarried heterosexual couples who live in committed relationships, which Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, had asked him about.
"The cost of opening it [to heterosexual couples]…does have a significant financial impact," Berry said. "At this point, the administration feels that impact is of such a size and magnitude we just can't afford to take this step at this time."
Berry said federal agencies have made progress in assessing whether there were other benefits they could extend to the domestic partners of their gay and lesbian employees administratively. All agencies met the September deadline for reporting to OPM which policies in place have adversely affected gay and lesbian federal employees. Berry said his agency is compiling a report based on those agency reviews, and will make recommendations for administrative action and possible additional legislation.
Lieberman said the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee would mark up the legislation in November with the goal of bringing it to the Senate floor in December for action in 2010. In July, the House Oversight and Government Reform Federal Workforce Subcommittee passed the bill by a 5-3 vote and forwarded it to the full committee.