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Intermountain Healthcare has joined the growing number of Utah employers extending health coverage and other perks to unmarried couples.

News of the company's extension of benefits to same-and opposite-sex couples trickled out Thursday, as workers were slowly notified of the change. What gave rise to the decision isn't yet clear. In a statement, company spokesman Daron Cowley said only, "This practice has become the norm for many companies and government organizations throughout Utah and the nation."

But human-rights groups say the development couldn't have come at a more auspicious time, just weeks after Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer's divisive statements on gay marriage. Advocates call it a leap toward greater equity in the workplace.

"Fairness continues to win the day, surprisingly most often in corporate America, which is seen as a conservative institution," said Michael Cole, press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C.

Intermountain is not the first Utah-based employer — or first in the health industry — to offer "domestic partner" benefits. Other hospital chains and health insurers have been doing it for years, including MountainStar HCA, the University of Utah's health system and Regence BlueCross BlueShield.

But Intermountain is indisputably the largest. The company operates 23 hospitals in Utah and southern Idaho and has 32,000 employees — rivaled in size only by the Utah government and the LDS Church, neither of which offer partner benefits.

"This decision will have an immensely positive impact on our community and on our families," said Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Most employers still don't offer partner benefits. But it's being increasingly recognized as a low-cost, high-return strategy for attracting talent.

That was the reason cited by BlueCross BlueShield in 2001, when it began offering "spousal equivalent" benefits to unmarried partners of workers.

The insurer began selling inclusive health plans to other companies about the same time.

Intermountain's insurance arm, SelectHealth, also sells the policies.

But in 2005, Cowley was quoted in The Salt Lake Tribune as saying that offering those benefits to Intermountain's own employees was deemed too costly.

He declined to put a dollar figure on Intermountain's change of heart Thursday, nor could he say how many employees might be eligible.

"We're still communicating the change with our employees and want them to hear it from Intermountain first," Cowley said.

A newsletter being circulated to employees suggests domestic partners will be eligible for all insurance benefits: medical, dental, vision, flex-spending accounts and life insurance.

"There are specific documentation requirements," the bulletin reads, and premiums and taxability may be different for domestic-partner coverage.

Employees have from Nov. 11 to 23 to apply, and benefits will take effect at the start of the new year.

Among those hoping to take advantage of the new perk is Life Flight nurse Lorie Hutchison, who has logged 18 years with Intermountain.

Her partner has health coverage, but combining plans would save money.

"Plus, if she gets injured or hurt right now, I have to take her to a non-Intermountain hospital, one I'm not familiar with," the 46-year-old said. "Other hospitals are good, but it's nice to have rapport with the physicians. You feel like you have an in."

Matthew Haws, a medical technician, intends to add his partner of two years, Trent Lake, to his plan.

But for Haws, 24, a returned Mormon missionary who says declaring his homosexuality to friends and family "was the biggest hardship of my life," the importance of Intermountain's decision is the message that it sends.

"It makes me feel more accepted and equal. I'm just another member of the population. I want to be treated as such," he said.

Changing rules

In 1982, The Village Voice, a weekly New York newspaper, became the first employer to offer domestic-partner benefits to its employees' same-sex partners.

By 1990, nearly two-dozen U.S. employers offered "spousal equivalent" benefits.

A majority of the largest Fortune 500 corporations in the United States provide health coverage to unmarried partners of employees.

In Utah, ARUP Laboratories was among the first employers to cover domestic partners in 1997.

Among those to follow suit: Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County governments; MountainStar/HCA Healthcare; Regence BlueCross BlueShield; the University of Utah; Abbott Laboratories, American Express; American Airlines; AT&T; Barnes & Noble; Best Buy; Costco; Delta Air Lines; Ernst & Young; Ford; Honeywell; Intel; J.C. Penney, Liberty Mutual; Marriott International; Nordstrom; Novell; Qwest; Sears; Skywest; Starbucks; Home Depot; Target; United Airlines; UPS; Verizon; Wachovia; Walgreens and Wells Fargo.

Sources: Intermountain Healthcare, news reports and the Human Rights Campaign