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City moves to extend COBRA-type benefits to domestic partners

Tuesday, November 3, 2009 by Austin Monitor

City Manager Marc Ott is taking steps to ensure that the domestic partners of city employees will receive COBRA-like benefits, such as health insurance, in the event of death or termination of their partner.


COBRA is the federal legislation requiring employers to extend health care insurance to employees and their qualified dependants. However, COBRA (the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) uses the definition of ‘spouse’ that is used in the Defense of Marriage Act, a husband or wife of the opposite sex, not same sex partners.


The problem came to light in September, after the death of city employee Frank Kopic, who served as Council Member Bill Spelman’s secretary when Spelman first served on the City Council in 1997. Kopic’s partner, Dan McGowan, learned that he was not eligible to apply for city-sponsored health insurance because he was not covered by COBRA and the city did not have a similar benefit.


Ott sent a memo to the City Council on Monday informing that he would add such a benefit for the same sex spouses or partners of city employees “in the spirit of the (city’s) recently approved non-discrimination policy.” He is able to do that without Council action since it is within the appropriated budget for 2010. The financial impact is cost neutral, he said.


According to Ott’s memo, there are 228 domestic partners covered by the city’s domestic partner benefit. Ott said McGowan would be eligible for the benefit under a “grandfather” clause. 


“I just found out; that’s wonderful,” Spelman said. “It was what was fair. The manager was willing to cough up local funds so that survivors” of domestic partners can access COBRA benefits. “Frank and Danny were married in San Francisco last year, but that marriage is not recognized in the State of Texas or by the federal government.”


Spelman said while he was close to this situation, there are larger issues involved.


“The issue transcends Frank and Dan; it is going to provide fundamental equity for all city employees,” he said. “They’ll feel better knowing this is going to be available to their partners. (It wasn’t hard) putting a bug in the manager’s ear and ask him to do the right thing; he did not hesitate.”


Council Member Randi Shade also expressed her appreciation with the manager’s actions.


“I am very pleased that the City of Austin continues to find ways to treat all of our employees and their families with equality and respect,” she said “An extra thank you to our new HR Director Mark Washington and to Marc Ott for working to make sure we can once again lead Texas cities in progressive personnel policies.”


A survey by city staff shows that similar benefits are extended in Texas by only two other entities: Dell Inc. and the City of El Paso.

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