11/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

AZ Govt Overrides Voters, Strips Benefits From Domestic Partners & Disabled Dependents

PHOENIX, AZ -- In just weeks, hundreds of adult disabled children and domestic partners of Arizona state employees will lose health insurance coverage and other benefits as part of a budget bill passed over the summer. The new provision overrides a referendum that was voted down by Arizonians in the 2006 general election.

In August the state's legislature, which is dominated by social conservatives, passed a provision containing a more narrow definition of dependents for the purposes of determining benefit eligibility for state employees. The provision, which passed the legislature over the summer as part of a budget bill, specifies that benefits will  be granted only to "a spouse, a child under the age of 19, or a child under the age of 23 who is a full-time student."

This new definition overturns an administrative order by former
Governor Janet Napolitano (D) that allowed state employees who could
prove at least a year-long "financial interdependence" to add dependent
beneficiaries regardless of gender or age. Anyone who falls outside of
the new, more narrow definition, including adult-disabled children,
full-time students between the ages of 23 and 25, opposite-sex domestic
partners, and same-sex domestic partners, will become ineligible for
dependent benefits.

The new definition was hotly debated by the House Appropriations Committee in June and in August when it was redrafted and passed. There was even procedural wrangling over grandfathering benefits for those already on the rolls, but minority Democrats were outmaneuvered by majority Republicans.

During a House Appropriations Committee hearing, Rep. John Kavanaugh (R) said if someone is still in school at the age of 23, he or she should get their own health insurance. Kavanagh told me Monday morning that adult disabled children should also not be on their parents' health insurance, saying, "Once they are adults, they need to buy their own policy. If they can't afford it, they can get Medicaid." When asked what they should do if they don't qualify for Medicaid and have pre-existing conditions that private insurance will not cover, Kavanagh responded, "I agree that needs to be reformed."

In 2006, Arizona voters became the first in the nation to vote against a ban on gay marriage. The referendum also would have blocked the state government from providing benefits for domestic partners of state employees. Donna Taylor, who stands to lose the benefits she receives through her partner of 26 years, says, "This went to the voters. They are overriding what the voters said."

"I think it's fair to say that there are many of my Republican colleagues at the Capitol who believe that domestic partner benefits support 'gay lifestyles' even though the facts are very clear that the majority of domestic partners who receive benefits around the state are straight and not gay," said state Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D).

Christina Vassett, who says she and her boyfriend choose an unmarried lifestyle because it is meaningful to them, asks "What would happen if the state said to married couples, we're not going to give your spouses health insurance? Are we just going to pick one sin?" adding, "It's even worse for same-sex couples because they can't get benefits
unless they are married, but they don't have the choice to get married."

Governor Jan Brewer (R) signed the bill on September 4. Just days later, Brewer said in a speech that she often prays with her staffers about difficult issues like these, "And we stop, and we take that time, and we pray about it," explaining, "I firmly believe that God has placed me in this powerful position of Arizona's governor to help guide our state through the difficulty that we are currently facing."

Rev. Dr. Welton Gaddy, President of Interfaith Alliance, wrote an open letter to Brewer saying, attribute some of your actions as Governor, at least in part, to your belief that God is responsible for your current position 'God has placed me in this powerful position as Arizona’s governor,' .... Regardless of your religious beliefs towards domestic partners, in our country, law, not scripture, should be the foundation of government benefits for citizens. Thus, all citizens should receive the same civil rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution without infringing on anyone’s religious rights.

In 2006, Brewer told the Center for Arizona Policy in a survey that she opposes benefits for domestic partners of state employees.

Senate President Bob Burns (R) says the change in definition of "dependent" is important because the state is running a significant deficit. But according to the Department of Administration, the cost of providing health insurance to domestic partners ($3 million) is less than one half of one percent of the total cost ($625 million) of providing health insurance.

Equality Arizona spokesperson Barbara says, "They have publicly couched this as part of the budget-saving measures. Of course it's not about the economics. It is absolutely targeting same-sex couples and cohabitating heterosexual couples."

When Napolitano gave domestic partners benefits, her Director of Administration Bill Bell said the state, especially universities, would save money because they would attract and retain better employees. But Senate Majority Whip Pamela Gorman (R) disputes that claim, "I haven't heard from any of those people saying they only work for Arizona for that reason."

But several state and university employees that I spoke with indicated that they no longer feel welcomed by the state. One state employee who did not wish to be named said, "I choose to work for the state as a public servant, but the state just spit in my eye."

McCullough-Jones says, "This particular benefit is critical because it is doing exactly what society asks us to do, and that's to take care and be responsible for our families."

Beverly Seckinger, who has worked on the University of Arizona faculty for nearly 20 years, says, "I'm not anxious to go off and move to another state after putting down roots for decades here, but this kind of action makes you think twice about it."

Donna Taylor has been with her partner for more than a quarter of a century but will lose her insurance because she will no longer fit the definition. She has degenerative Rheumatoid arthritis and other related health problems. She takes 7 prescription medications; one costs $350. She says she will be able to get health insurance through one of her two jobs, but there will be a gap between policies for a couple of months, and she will not be able to afford her medications during that period.

"It is purposeful discrimination. It is unequal pay for equal work," says Sharon Keeler whose partner of 17 years will also lose benefits, "They purposely chose to take benefits away from people who work the same jobs as others because they are making a moral judgment."

State university employees are on the state benefit system, so employees of Arizona State University (ASU), Northern Arizona University (NAU), and University of Arizona (UA) are also affected. University leaders at all three have been in lockstep against the new, more narrow definition of dependents, and employees at each say the universities have been very supportive. All three have made public pleas for state leaders to reconsider the issue.

In Arizona, bills usually become effective 90 days after being signed by the governor, but the Department of Administration recently announced that this change would not be effective until November 24, giving current beneficiaries a few more weeks to find health insurance coverage elsewhere.

UPDATE: On Oct. 9, the Arizona Dept. of Administration announced that benefits for domestic partners and disabled dependents will continue until October 2010 because eliminating these benefits could put the state in violation of its contract laws.

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