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March 21, 2008

DOMA gap leaves former center director

Cleveland--A former executive director of the Cleveland LGBT Center finds herself in a position faced by many queer people across the country: At the end of the month, her partner will not be covered under her health insurance.

Judith Rainbrook’s tenure at the head of what was then called the Lesbian and Gay Community Service Center of Cleveland ended in 1996, after which she went to University Hospitals, working in the Information Technology department.

While there, she alternated between having and not having domestic partner benefits.

The institution began providing domestic partner health benefits on January 1, 2002.

“I was very proud and excited . . . when UHHS adopted policies that provided domestic partnership health care benefits for its employees,” Rainbrook wrote in a letter to University Hospitals president Thomas F. Zenty III.

Unfortunately, as the hospital system outsourced parts of its IT department, Rainbrook found herself employed by First Consulting Group and working for Affiliated Computer Services, who were providing IT support to the hospitals.

Affiliated did not have domestic partner benefits, but adopted them within a year of Rainbrook’s transfer. She believes lobbying by University Hospitals may have encouraged their policy change.

Her tenure at Affiliated was facilitated through First Consulting Group, who were working with University Hospitals. When First Consulting and University Hospitals ended their relationship with Affiliated, Rainbrook was transferred into First Consulting, and her domestic partner benefits were kept intact.

At the end of 2007, Rainbrook left First Consulting, keeping her health coverage through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act’s provisions for continuing health benefits after employment. First Consulting allowed her to keep the domestic partner benefits under COBRA as well.

Unfortunately for Rainbrook, First Consulting was purchased by Computer Sciences Corporation. She got a letter last month notifying her that, after March 28, she would no longer have domestic partner health benefits under the COBRA plan.

The letter offered the availability of other coverage she could purchase, but that would be prohibitively expensive.

The COBRA legislation requires businesses that offer health benefits to allow former employees continuing access to them for 18 months, although it does not require the employer to subsidize the benefits.

Unfortunately, being a federal law, COBRA does not include domestic partnerships, civil unions or same-sex marriages, thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

However, while COBRA does not require benefits being extended to domestic partners, it also does not preclude companies from offering them.

University Hospitals Director of Media and Public Relations Loree Vick noted, “For several years, University Hospitals has offered domestic partner benefits for its employees, and while it can encourage companies with which it contracts to offer comparable benefits packages, the hospital cannot prescribe what benefits any outside company or contractor offers its employees.”

However, Sue Doerfer, the current executive director of the Cleveland LGBT Center, sees the issue more as one illustrating a need for change in federal law.

"This is an example of the discrimination that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face every day. It clearly points out the need to enact legislation that would provide equal rights and benefits for all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” she said.

University Hospitals’ 2001 decision to extend benefits to domestic partners of its employees made it the first major hospital in Ohio with such a program, and at the time, one of the state’s largest employers with domestic partner health benefits.


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