Friday, April 13, 2007

When Semantics Are More Than Just Semantics

Not too long ago, the question of the day on Bilerico wondered if gay readers would marry if marriage equality was enshrined in law, and if we are hell-bent on having marriages, or if we'd settle for civil unions. I responded yes, the girlfriend and I would get married in a heartbeat, and that as long as the legal protections were equivalent, I wouldn't care what label they slapped on it. If they're legally functionally equivalent, I said, "marriage" or "civil union" is just semantics.

Except when it's not.

Civilly unionized gay couples in New Jersey are finding, to their dismay, that many private entities are seizing on the absence of the term "marriage" on their legal documents to deny healthcare coverage and other benefits.
Nickie Brazier called U.P.S., where she is a driver, to add Heather Aurand to her health insurance the day after their Feb. 22 civil union in New Jersey, knowing it would save them $340 a month. But U.P.S. said no. “They said it was because we’re not married,” Ms. Brazier recalled.

Dr. Kevin Slavin was able to sign his partner up for the health plan at the hospital where he specializes in pediatric infectious diseases but soon learned that both men’s benefits would be treated as taxable income — not the case for his married coworkers — and that his partner could not collect his pension if Dr. Slavin died.

The New Jersey civil union law was designed to fulfill that state's Supreme Court ruling that "every statutory right and benefit conferred to heterosexual couples through civil marriage must be made available to committed same-sex couples." The state legislature balked at legalizing same-sex marriage, but contended that civil unions would meet the requirements laid out by the court. Barely two months later, it is clear they fall woefully short.

[R]esidents who work for companies headquartered in other states, and those whose insurers are based outside New Jersey, have found it difficult if not impossible to sign their partners up for health insurance. Unions and employers whose self-insured plans are federally regulated have also denied coverage in some cases. Staff members in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms have questioned partners’ role in decision-making. Confusion abounds over the interplay of state and federal laws governing taxes, inheritance and property.

And some of the contortions insurance companies have gone through to avoid full compliance with the law are comically insulting.

Then there are cases like that of the lesbian who was told that she was likely to be denied coverage for a mammogram after she added her partner to her insurance. The insurance company changed the employee’s designation to male since there was no spot on its forms for “civil union spouse.”

Simplicity is rarely the hallmark of legislative action. And empathy is ever more rarely the hallmark of The People's reaction to it. Granted, insurance companies are cutthroat, always on the prowl for new and creative ways to deny coverage. If company policy requires extending benefits only to married partners, and the words civil and union never appear consecutively in the contract, then the claims department is going to go completely by the book and deny coverage to anyone who can't produce a state-issued marriage license.

Despite the inevitability of the cases detailed in the Times article and their source in the faceless rules-driven bureaucracy of state and corporate HR departments and insurance companies, it is difficult not to view this as one more damn knee to the groin. Marriage amendments are defeated in Arizona and Indiana (hooray!) not because voters recognize them as unconscionably discriminatory against a group of their fellow citizens, but because they fear the amendments would adversely impact unmarried heterosexual couples (oh). Marriage amendments are passed in Michigan and Ohio partly because their proponents insist that gay couples' existing benefits and legal contracts will not be affected (well, okay...) and then, as soon as the governor's signature is dry on the paper, lawsuits are filed forcing the state and its institutions to curtail those benefits (oh). And now, the New Jersey legislature offered up all the benefits, rights, and responsibilities of marriage to gay couples, insisting that calling that arrangement a union instead of marriage is only semantics, preserving the holy word for straight couples (whatever, but hooray!)... and we find that the answer to "What's in a word?" is quite a lot, actually.

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