The legalization of gay marriage in North Carolina means more gay and lesbian individuals will now be eligible for health insurance coverage through their spouses’ employers, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Some big companies such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Duke Energy have offered benefits to employees in same-sex partnerships for years. But other employers are now making changes or mulling them.
“If they haven’t adjusted policy already, they’re really looking at it seriously,” said Steve Graybill, a partner with consulting firm Mercer in Charlotte.
Same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina last week, with a federal judge ordering the state to immediately set aside its ban. Mecklenburg County began issuing Charlotte’s first marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples on Monday.
The North Carolina health plan for state employees and teachers, which covers 677,639 members, issued a notice saying same-sex spouses of plan members are now eligible for health coverage.
With 18,143 employees, CMS is one of the Charlotte area’s biggest employers. Spouses would be eligible for coverage as of Nov. 1, and employees would have to present a marriage certificate.
CMS spokeswoman Renee McCoy said she didn’t know how many employees would take advantage of the change.
Some religious institutions aren’t moving so fast.
The Catholic Diocese of Charlotte has not discussed any change to its employee benefits policies, spokesman David Hains said, noting that the court ruling came faster than most expected.
Diocese employees, he said, sign an agreement that they will not do anything contradictory to the teaching of the Catholic Church. That includes same-sex marriage, which the church teaches violates the “natural prescription” of God.
The diocese employs 2,000 people at 93 parishes and 18 schools across the western half of North Carolina, Hains said.
“When we communicate something, we will communicate to employees first,” Hains said, adding that there’s no established timeline for a decision.
At Belmont Abbey College in Gaston County, spokesman Rolando Rivas said the Catholic college has not yet discussed the issue internally.
Last week, the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College, both Catholic colleges in Indiana, said they would extend employee benefits to spouses in same-sex marriages.
Employers looking for guidance
Because the ruling came down only last week, many employers are in a holding pattern, said Cathy Graham, director of benefit services for the Employers Association, a Charlotte-based group that provides training and human resources services to 900 companies.
Even the Employers Association, which employs 25 people, is wrestling to figure out how its traditional plan under Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina will be affected.
This week, Graham spoke with a group of 35 employers with questions and concerns about what to do in light of the ruling. Many said they are waiting for guidance from their brokers, corporate attorneys or the Employers Association.
Others, she said, had already provided coverage to spouses who married in states where it was legal.
Still, some don’t plan to change anything until they’re told to, she said.
“It’s not a huge groundswell of activity right now,” she said.
Under the Affordable Care Act, employers are required to provide affordable coverage to their employees and to offer it to their children, but spousal coverage is not required, Graybill, of Mercer, said.
If companies choose to offer coverage to opposite-sex spouses but not same-sex spouses, they could risk legal challenges, Graybill said. “It’s a hard battle to fight given where the courts have landed,” he said.
One possible change, he said, is that some employers could offer coverage for legally married spouses but drop coverage for unmarried domestic partners, he said.
Same-sex couples are also likely to face the same restrictions on coverage required of opposite-sex couples, Graybill said. For example, some employers don’t cover spouses if they are employed elsewhere, or they require these spouses to pay a surcharge to get coverage.
Mecklenburg County approved domestic-partner benefits for county employees and their partners in late 2009. Deputy County Manager Chris Peek said the policy carries over to same-sex spouses.
“It might slightly change the policy with regard to the registration and the information they would share with us,” Peek said. “But for us, it will be pretty much business as usual. They had access to all benefits already and (the legalization of same-sex marriage) didn’t add any additional access, or take any away.”
The city of Charlotte began offering benefits to same-sex domestic partners of city employees in January 2013, but spokeswoman Nicole Ramsey said it was too early to know how benefits may change.
Charlotte-based Autobell, the car wash company with more than 60 locations in four states, will extend its benefits to spouses of gay or lesbian employees because it already routinely offers spousal coverage, said Chief Operating Officer Carl Howard.
“If it’s a legal marriage in North Carolina, we offer coverage,” he said.
Queens University of Charlotte, which employs 527 people, has offered benefits to domestic partners of gay and lesbian employees since 2007, said Teri Orsini, the private college’s human resources director.
At that time, employees submitted an affidavit that declared their domestic partnership.
“Starting last year, we asked ourselves the question: ‘Do we really care if it’s a same-sex ... domestic partner?’ ” Orsini said. “No, we don’t care. Not in a bad way, but it’s not our business.”
The university removed the same-gender stipulation on its policies, she said, and opened coverage to all domestic partners. Employees no longer submit an affidavit, Orsini said, because administrators did not ask the same of heterosexual married couples.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina has offered spousal benefits to its straight and gay employees since 2003, spokesman Lew Borman said.
But the state’s biggest health insurer faced criticism earlier this year after it canceled family coverage for 20 same-sex couples because of restrictive contract language that defined “spouse” as someone of the “opposite sex.” The insurer later changed course and included same-sex couples in the scope of its family coverage to employers.
Staff writers Andrew Dunn, Steve Harrison and David Perlmutt contributed.