Fair Share?

By NEIL MILLER  |  November 19, 2009

Under the vetoed San Francisco ordinance proposed in 1982, such couples were to register with the city clerk and sign an affidavit stating they were domestic partners.  The San Francisco proposal also provided for “domestic-partner divorce” (as does the Berkeley ordinance).  Once a domestic partner was removed from health-insurance coverage, a city employee would not have been able to name another partner for six months.  That is the same time period required to obtain a legal divorce in California.

But even if a suitable definition of what constitutes a domestic partner can be found, the question inevitably raised is how to avoid abuse.  Marriage, after all, is governed by a recognized system of legal formalities.  However one defines a domestic partner, wouldn’t some employees try to get coverage for a roommate or friend, especially if that person is ill?  Couldn’t a domestic partner remain on the rolls long after the “partnership” is over?

Berkeley city employee Tom Brougham, the prime mover behind that city’s ordinance, claims the Berkeley definitions are so strict that no one would dare put anyone but a true domestic partner on the rolls.  Because a sworn statement that an employee is “responsible for the common welfare” of his or her domestic partner is enforceable in California courts, Brougham doubts there will be much casual abuse.  “A person who reneged later on might find themselves in court defending a claim against their resources,” he notes.  Given that possibility, he says, only “serious relationships” would apply.

Matthew Coles, a San Francisco attorney who framed the city’s ill-fated domestic-partners ordinance and who was a consultant on the Berkeley proposal, suggests two methods for eliminating the possibility of abuse.  One is to require a one-year period between the time one files as a domestic partner and the time one becomes eligible for benefits.  Such a waiting period would assure that a relationship is somewhat durable and that an employee is not putting someone down as a domestic partner simply because that person is sick and needs immediate insurance.  The San Francisco proposal included this one-year waiting period; the Village Voice has the same policy.  Currently, the Berkeley school system stipulates no time period before eligibility, but the final details are being negotiated with the city’s insurance carriers, and a waiting period may be added.

A second safeguard against abuse, says Coles, is to have an “open enrollment” period every year—a week or so when spouse equivalents could be added to a policy.  Again, that would prevent adding some friend as a domestic partner simply because he or she was ill.  As for keeping someone listed as a domestic partner long after a relationship has dissolved, Coles sees this as “no different from people in marriage who cease living together and don’t tell the insurance company.”  Insurance companies deal with such cases by spot-checking, he notes.

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