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Travis grapples with domestic partnerships and health plans

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Attempting to remedy “inequality” in the way the county processes open enrollment for domestic partnerships turned out to be a much more contentious task than Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt had planned. Her item, which would allow domestic partners to go through the same open enrollment procedures as married couples, prompted a lengthy discussion which ended up with a few offended citizens and action postponed in the wake of a committee recommendation. 


At issue is a county requirement that those bringing on a domestic partner into the county’s open enrollment health plan must resubmit an affidavit every plan year, in order to maintain their partner’s status in the plan. Married couples only need to notify the county if their marriage ends.


Travis County Assistant Attorney Barbara Wilson provoked the most commentary saying, “this is being presented as if we are dealing with similar situations, and the way our domestic partner situation is set up, it is not like the equivalent of husband and wife in a different kind of non-legal situation. (Domestic partnership) could be your mother, it could be your father… it is not necessarily a committed relationship.” She also added that domestic partnerships “do seem to change more frequently than spouses.” While she added that committed relationships may change “no more frequently,” she noted that any other adult in a shared household could be considered a domestic partnership.


Robin Osborn, a 21-year employee of Travis County in the Sheriff’s Department, spoke to commissioners on the subject. She told the court she has been in a committed same-sex relationship for 16 years and has never used open enrollment for her partner. Rather, it was Osborn’s mother who was enrolled as a domestic partner. Osborn said her mother had terminal cancer at the time and was on her open enrollment program until she passed. Osborn said that the requirement that she report the status of that relationship annually “to insinuate that I’m less honest because I have a same-sex partner is offensive to me as a person and an employee. And to insinuate that I have a less stable relationship because they are a same-sex partner and that they may change more often is also offensive.”


Osborn said the county clerk allows registration as a domestic partner and that the City of Austin relies on this affidavit from the clerk as a means of keeping tabs on the relationship’s status. The clerk can void the affidavit upon death or dissolution of the partnership. “So they are not requiring the same stringent guidelines the county seems to want,” Osborn said.


Eckhardt argued in a memo, “The ‘renewal’ policy for domestic partners is an informal and internal county policy not required by state or federal law.” She offered that the county amend its procedures to handle the dissolution of domestic partnerships in the same manner it does divorce, which makes the divorced couple report their disunion. The change would be for the next enrollment cycle as the current cycle just ended.


Daniel Bradford, an employee with the county attorney’s office said, “There are personal matters behind the scenes but from a legal standpoint there’s no legal barrier… no laws that require us to file an affidavit on a yearly basis to maintain that our relationship is still valid.” Bradford said his partner was covered under his insurance and they had been together for 10 years. “It’s offensive to me to have to file an affidavit on a yearly basis to continue to attest to my relationship,” he said.


Wilson and Eckhardt then exchanged brief words about what the commissioner’s proposal entailed. Wilson argued that Eckhardt’s proposal didn’t include any additional necessary requirements. Wilson explained to In Fact Daily, “It says nothing about adding requirements relating to what happens if a person is no longer eligible,” for domestic partner benefits. She added that even if a relationship is dissolved “it might not meet the criteria to comply with the definition of a domestic partner within the policy document.”


Judge Sam Biscoe said, “I don’t know that I will have a problem with it, except I’m going to need to understand it.” He suggested getting “the right people in the same room,” to discuss the specific changes and “help us to understand what’s required today that’s objectionable and then what the recommended changes are so we can understand them. It could be pretty simple.” Bradford retorted, “It is simple.” Biscoe disagreed sharply, “As County Judge, I don’t understand it now and rather than try to understand it today and act on it, it makes sense to get the right people in the same room.” Eckhardt stepped in, offering to work with others to craft whatever specific language would be needed to enable domestic partners the same procedures as married couples.


When Biscoe began putting together such a group he offered Wilson to join from the county attorney’s office. “I have an objection to Barbara Wilson being on the committee,” Bradford interjected. Bradford then volunteered that he not be on the committee either, and asked for someone “with no interest.”


Judge Biscoe appointed Tonya Mills, who also spoke in front of the commissioners, Osborn, Dan Mansour, Risk Manager for Human Resources,  and a representative from the county attorney’s office. “It’s not just about same sex partners,” Mills said, adding that she had used domestic partnership status to support a foster child. She said she had worked for years at a mutual fund that operated in the same process as married couples and that the solution “was simple — change the affidavit, change the process. It’s not that difficult. We are going to make it difficult; we are going to make it a huge process. It doesn’t have to be.” The committee will report back in two weeks to court.

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