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Key developments in the world of federal employee benefits: health, pay, and much more.

Nibbling at the Edges

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to announce that she will grant the domestic partners of gay and lesbian diplomats many of the same rights and protections as the spouses of heterosexual Foreign Service officers. But there are limits to what she can promise.

Clinton can open the door to diplomatic passports, emergency evacuations, medical clinics and language classes, and she can offer preferential consideration for certain jobs. But she can't extend coveted benefits such as membership in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program to domestic partners.

The State Department situation illustrates a challenge for agency heads who want to put gay and lesbian employees and their partners on equal footing with their straight counterparts. Agency leaders can make some changes, but sweeping reforms to the benefits system will require legislative action.

Clinton has the power to modify two sets of rules that affect treatment of domestic partners overseas: the Foreign Affairs Manual and the Department of State Standardized Regulations. But diplomats are covered by the same health care policies as other federal employees, and only Congress or the Office of Personnel Management can change those.

"It's not everything, but it's certainly a giant step towards full equality," said Michelle Schohn, president of the employee group Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies. "It still isn't health insurance, it's not pensions -- but it's everything the secretary could do."

Like the State Department, some other agencies that operate under different pay and benefits rules from the rest of the federal government have moved to grant more benefits to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian employees.

At the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, where employees can bargain over pay and benefits, the National Treasury Employees Union negotiated a domestic partnership benefits program. The agreement allows gay and lesbian employees to enroll their partners in health, dental, vision and life insurance programs and to participate fully in relocation programs. NTEU President Colleen Kelley said the union plans to continue to negotiate for domestic partner benefits in agencies that are exempt from Title 5 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which determines which issues are subject to collective bargaining.

One of two things could happen to make domestic partner benefits the governmentwide standard. The Office of Personnel Management could agree with two California judges who ruled that the agency has the authority to extend health insurance and other benefits to domestic partners, even though the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal government from treating same-sex relationships as marriages. Or Congress could pass the recently re-introduced Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, which requires agencies to give domestic partners the same benefits and responsibilities as their heterosexual counterparts.

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said on Wednesday that his general counsel disagreed with the California decision because there is no law giving the OPM chief the authority to grant benefits to new groups of people. Berry said his office cannot take action to extend domestic partner benefits without legislation. Advocates also want legislation to make sure policy changes are consistent across the government and survive changes in presidential administrations.

"The Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act would wrap a lot of things up very neatly," Schohn said. "Unfortunately, things like the Defense of Marriage Act have made it so we have to pursue our rights sort of piecemeal, but I think [the spread of some benefits for domestic partners] would go a long way towards pushing for the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act."

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