Believe it or not, it’s harder for same-sex couples to get health benefits from the Federal government than it is from Dow Chemical. Tammy Baldwin, the only out lesbian in the House of Representatives, is trying to change that with H.R. 2517, also known as The Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act of 2009. A similar bill, S. 1102, was put forward in the Senate by Independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman from Connecticut.

Baldwin introduced the bill May 20 and on June 29, the Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Post Office and the District of Columbia voted 5-3 to send the bill to the full committee. That’s a major achievement but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Some interesting moments came out during testimony for the bill’s passage. John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, also testified at the hearing. Berry, who is the highest openly gay official in the government, said the Obama administration is 100% behind the bill’s passage. “I personally stand to benefit from this legislation, as my partner of 13 years will be eligible to enjoy the benefits of this legislation, if enacted.”

Berry added: “At my confirmation hearing, I said that two of my primary goals as the Director of OPM would be to make the Federal Government the country’s model employer and to attract the best and the brightest Americans to Federal service. The passage of H.R. 2517 is essential to the accomplishment of both of these goals.”

Berry said adding domestic-partner health insurance and survivor benefits for both Federal workers and retirees would cost $56 million in 2010 – that’s equal 0.2% of the entire cost to the Federal Government of Federal employee health insurance. That cost, Berry said, would be funded by the additional government contribution payments for self and family health insurance plans. All this includes $19 million in savings because retirees who elect survivor benefits for their domestic partners would experience a reduction in their annuity payments.

M.V. Lee Badgett, director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration and a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, quantified the need for some same-sex benefits at the Federal level: she said there are more than 34,000 same-sex partners of federal employees. These people are currently denied benefits that almost two-thirds of the Fortune 1000, and 83% of Fortune 100 companies already provide.

“This important legislation would put the federal government in the mainstream of modern compensation practices,” said Badgett, who is also the research director of the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law. “The experience of thousands of employers offering domestic partner benefits in the United States today, as well as research by myself and other scholars support my conclusion that the federal government can adopt and implement this new policy easily and affordably.”

Baldwin’s bill defines “domestic partner” as “an adult unmarried person living with another adult unmarried person of the same sex in a committed, intimate relationship.” The bill would provide benefits like federal health insurance, dental and vision benefits, retirement and disability benefits, family, medical, and emergency leave, group life insurance, long-term care insurance, compensation for work injuries, and benefits for disability, death, or captivity.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) union supports Baldwin and Lieberman’s bills. During testimony on the Hill, AFGE president said, “…it is imperative that this legislation be passed.”

“Withholding benefits in the public sector will affect recruiting among the next generation of employees. It is now time for the federal government to step up,” he added.

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