Douglas County will consider extending benefits to same-sex spouses of county employees who were legally married in other states.
A measure before the County Board on Tuesday would change the definition of an eligible spouse from “legally married spouse” to “the person to whom the employee is legally married, regardless of whether that person is of the same gender or opposite gender of the employee.”
If approved, the change would apply to all county benefits, including health insurance.
The county is self-insured. As drafted, the new language would go into effect Jan. 1, though the board could consider briefly re-opening the sign-up window to allow same-sex spouses of current employees to enroll.
“We're just trying to be consistent with federal guidelines,” board member Clare Duda said.
A “handful” of county employees would be affected, board chairwoman Mary Ann Borgeson said.
The County Board plans to discuss residency requirements for same-sex couples — whether they must live in Iowa or another state that recognizes same sex marriages, or just have been legally married in another state.
The move follows a decision by the City of Omaha not to extend health insurance and dental benefits to the spouses of legally married gay employees.
They would still be eligible for pension and flexible spending benefits. But Mayor Jean Stothert, citing policy language from Coventry, the city's health plan administrator, said health and dental coverage would need to be negotiated in future union contracts.
The Omaha police union filed a grievance, saying the city should use the definition used by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska, the city's plan administrator when the police labor contract went into effect.
In accordance with new U.S. Department of Labor guidelines issued after the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, Blue Cross already covers same-sex spouses who live in a state that recognizes their marriage.
But the insurer sent customers more policy guidance this month: For groups fully insured through Blue Cross, same-sex spouses who are legally married will be covered, regardless of whether they live in a state that recognizes their union.
That also will be the default definition for self-insured groups that contract with Blue Cross for claim administration, unless policyholders opt out before Jan. 1.
Sarpy County, which has a policy with Blue Cross, is deferring to the insurer with respect to defining “spouse,” said Karen Buche, the county human resources director.
Pension benefits also are at issue. The City of Omaha will extend pension benefits to same-sex couples, and Borgeson said Douglas County's new definition would cover pension beneficiaries.
Sarpy County, meanwhile, is part of the Nebraska Public Employees Retirement System, which already allows nomination of non-spousal beneficiaries, so an employee could nominate a same-sex spouse who isn't recognized in the state.
But the program's joint and survivor annuity does have a restriction on non-spousal benefit amounts. Spouses — which the system defines in accordance with a state constitutional amendment that recognizes only heterosexual marriages — can opt for a 50, 75 or 100 percent benefit. The only option for a non-spousal annuity is a 50 percent benefit.
“We discussed it, and basically, we will not be making any changes unless the state law changes,” said Phyllis Chambers, executive director of the state retirement system.