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Bill Extends COBRA Health Insurance to Same-Sex Partners

April 5, 2010 - by Eric Naing

Included in the various unemployment benefits that expired this week thanks to Congressional inaction is a 65 percent subsidy for COBRA health insurance. But even with this subsidy in place, there are still millions of Americans, both unmarried opposite-sex couples and unable-to-be-married same sex couples, that can’t purchase COBRA insurance in the first place. A bill introduced last month by Sen. Barbara Boxer [D, CA] aims to change this.

Boxer’s Equal Access to COBRA Act (S.3182) would give same-sex partners, same and opposite-sex domestic partners, as well as qualified siblings, parents and grandparents the ability to purchase health insurance through COBRA.

The 1986 Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA, allows individuals who receive health insurance from an employer to temporarily purchase coverage at lower group rates after losing that job. Spouses and dependents of the former employee are also eligible for COBRA coverage. But under the Defense of Marriage Act, a same sex-partner can’t be a spouse since same-sex marriages aren’t federally recognized.

While some companies allow unmarried partners to purchase health insurance under company rates, not all do – nor are they legally obliged to unlike for opposite-sex spouses. And as notes, there even is a disparity between the number of companies that offer benefits to unmarried same-sex versus opposite-sex couples:

[O]nly 21 percent of U.S. employers even offer same-sex partner benefits, versus 31 percent that cover unmarried opposite-sex partners. Larger firms and ones in the west and northeast are more likely to offer such benefits, but far from all do so.

Not only that, but many people who need insurance for a same-sex partner hesitate to ask for it because they fear losing their jobs. In 29 states, it is still legal for employers to discriminate against an employee on the basis of sexual orientation.

Of course, the bill applies not only to same sex couples. As the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, notes, millions of unmarried opposite-sex couples could also benefit from this bill:

Nontraditional families, including domestic partnerships, same-sex marriages, and multigenerational families are increasingly common. There are 6.6 million opposite-sex unmarried partners, nearly 800,000 same-sex couples, and 16 percent of Americans living in a multigenerational household, according to new research from the Pew Research Center.

Limiting benefits only to those who are married is discriminatory and excludes tens of millions of people from basic benefits. This bill would be an important step to equality among American families.

The bill is currently in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and has no sponsors other than Sen. Boxer.


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