Deb Price | Arizona Undermines Gay Families

Imagine having family health care one day and having it yanked away the next.

Your job hasn’t changed. And other public employees in your state — the ones working beside you at a university library or in a highway patrol car — continue to get insurance coverage for their loved ones.

Sound unfair? You betcha. But that’s exactly the prospect for gay state government workers in Arizona, where the legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer recently decided to revoke partner benefits.

The state’s heterosexual workers have the option of marrying to keep their family health care benefits. Arizona bans same-sex marriage, though.

So now, with the help of Lambda Legal, 10 gay state workers are suing in federal court to try to keep the state from stripping them of their family coverage.

The “here today, gone tomorrow” attitude of Arizona’s officials underscores how vulnerable those of us who’re gay will remain until every state and the federal government recognize our right to marry.

Arizona’s stinginess runs counter to positive developments elsewhere: New York’s top court ruled Nov. 19 that state agencies can continue recognizing out-of-state gay marriages for purposes of extending family coverage to public employees. Meanwhile, two federal judges with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently stood up for their gay court employees, who’ve been told by Uncle Sam that they can’t enroll their spouses in the federal benefits program.

Essentially, the judges said the executive branch can’t simply wave the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and force the judiciary to discriminate against its gay married employees. Judge Stephen Reinhardt said a gay court employee should be reimbursed for what he has to pay for private health coverage for his husband, while Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, a Ronald Reagan appointee, said a woman judicial attorney at the court is entitled to enroll her wife in the federal employee benefits program.

But in Arizona, couples like University of Arizona librarian Joseph Diaz and his partner, Ruben Jimenez, are worried about how they’ll come up with $300 a month to pay for Jimenez’s medicine and testing strips for high cholesterol and diabetes. The couple signed up for partner benefits created under Gov. Janet Napolitano in 2008, before she left to become secretary of Homeland Security.

About 800 state workers enrolled, at a cost of $3.3 million. (The vast majority is believed to be heterosexual couples.) That’s a tiny fraction of the $650 million the state spent on employee health care. But the new budget signed into law this year deletes partner benefits. They are set to expire next Oct. 1.

Unless a federal judge rules that canceling partner benefits would violate the constitutional rights of gay couples since they can’t marry in Arizona, Leslie Kemp, a marketing coordinator at Northern Arizona University, and Jennifer Morris will see their finances thrown into disarray as they have their second child. And Judith McDaniel, a University of Arizona political science adjunct instructor, and Jan Schwartz, who continually needs eye exams, will be threatened with losing Schwartz’s coverage as they are saving for retirement. They were told Schwartz’s glaucoma would be a pre-existing condition and not covered under a private insurance plan, which would nevertheless have a $2,600 deductible and cost $335 a month. McDaniel’s current, no-deductible family coverage costs just $97.

Arizona Highway Patrol officer Tracy Collins would lose coverage for her partner, Diana Forrest, who has high blood pressure and whose job doesn’t offer health benefits.

“I put my life on the line every day for the people of Arizona just by going to work,” says Collins. “Losing Diana’s health coverage will put us in a desperate situation.”

If the state of Arizona gets lucky, a judge will save it from mean-spiritedness.

Otherwise, Arizona can expect that a great many dedicated gay cops, librarians, professors and other public servants will eventually move their talents — and their families — to friendlier states.

Copyright 2009