Gay rights issue: S.L. County OKs adult-designees' benefits

Wilson initiative » A GOP freshman joins Dems in voting for the measure that will help gay partners.
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For nearly two decades, David Turner has watched his colleagues provide their families with health insurance. But he couldn't do the same -- not even when his partner battled prostate cancer.

Why? Because his employer, Salt Lake County, wouldn't offer benefits to same-sex partners.

That's about to change. The County Council voted 6-3 on Tuesday to extend health insurance, dental coverage, extended funeral leave, life insurance and a variety of other protections to unmarried partners or other "adult designees" of county employees.

The vote is a political triumph for Democratic Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, who has fought feverishly for same-sex-couple benefits since taking office in 2005. She has argued that a more-progressive approach to health care and other job perks would reduce turnover, increase productivity and save long-term medical expenses by offering more expansive preventive care.

"The winds have changed," Wilson said, "I hope not just the political winds, but the winds of reason and fairness on this issue."

All five Democrats voted for her measure, along with Republican newcomer Max Burdick, who said the council's decision shouldn't be based on personal judgments about race, religion or sexual orientation.

But the move remains unsettling for other Republicans, who fear that it will erode the traditional family by recognizing, through legal status, an alternative to the husband-wife relationship.

"The principal foundation of our society, of our country and of our neighborhoods is the family," Republican Councilman Jeff Allen said. "As we start to attack it from different angles, we can, over time, denigrate it."

Despite those fears, the measure comes as a long-awaited step forward for Turner, who oversees senior-center programming for the county's Aging Services Division. The county's health-care coverage finally will reach his partner of 19 years, Marlin Criddle, who has shouldered sometimes-burdensome medical bills and avoided preventive care because of the price tag of private insurance.

"In this country," Turner said, "we should be covering as many people as we can with health insurance."

Wilson's plan -- which the council must adopt by a formal, and largely ceremonial, vote later this month -- will cost the county an estimated $275,000 a year.

It will unlock benefits for employees' adult designees -- a term that applies to any friend, family member or domestic partner who has lived with the county staffer for at least a year and demonstrated financial co-dependence.

While same-sex partners undoubtedly will benefit from the program, so, too, will unmarried heterosexual couples such as Dan Roper and Emily Fifer, who have lived together for three years while Fifer pursues a master's degree in fine arts and modern dance at the University of Utah.

Roper, meanwhile, has worked as a full-time program coordinator at the Magna Fitness and Recreation Center.

The two aren't yet ready to marry. But that could spell trouble this spring, when Fifer graduates and loses her school-sponsored health insurance. While the couple want to tie the knot sometime after graduation, Roper said, "We don't want to be forced on marriage by insurance."

Under the adult-designee program, they won't have to.

Salt Lake City adopted a similar setup in 2006, which officials suggested could include up to 96 employees at a cost of $225,000. Last year, Utah's capital had 63 people enrolled. The bill: $183,000.

The county's initiative comes during a high-profile push for gay rights on Utah's Capitol Hill -- an effort that so far is winning headlines but losing key votes.

Not so in Utah's most-populous county, with passage of Wilson's adult-designees' measure.

"I'm glad we are moving into a new dawn in Salt Lake County," Democratic Councilman Joe Hatch said.

"It's fantastic," added Will Carlson, Equality Utah's public-policy manager. "With gay and transgender people being pushed out of rural Utah, Salt Lake County is willing to welcome them. And we appreciate that."

Tribune reporter Rosemary Winters contributed to this story.

Jenny Wilson's fight

July 2005 » During her first year in office, Democratic Councilwoman Jenny Wilson champions employment benefits for domestic partners. The measure fails 5-4 along party lines.

April 2008 » Wilson widens her proposal in to include benefits for "adult designees" -- a definition that applies to domestic partners, relatives and friends who share the same household and demonstrate financial co-dependence. But, again, the measure falters as the Republican majority instead decides to explore a pay-for-yourself policy that would offer expanded health benefits so long as the beneficiary foots the full premium.

Tuesday » With a new Democratic majority and one GOP vote, Wilson prevails in providing health insurance, dental coverage, life insurance, extended funeral leave and other job-related benefits to the "adult designees" of county workers. "In this broken world of health care," Wilson says, "health insurance is really as important as the amount of money an employee makes."

Jeremiah Stettler

Who is covered?

Salt Lake County soon will extend health insurance and employment benefits to the "adult designees" of unmarried county employees. Here's what it takes to qualify:

Must be at least 18 years old.

Must have lived with the employee for 12 months.

Must demonstrate financial co-dependence with the employee.

No more than one adult designee per employee.