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Following a landmark federal ruling striking down Utah's ban on same-sex marriage, the agency that insures tens of thousands of Utah public employees will extend benefits to newly legal spouses.

"These are not luxuries ... medical treatment and health insurance are among our most basic needs, so it has a direct impact on a lot of Utah families," said Clifford Rosky, a law professor at the University of Utah and board chairman of Equality Utah. "I think it's really great news."

The Public Employees Health Program (PEHP) provides benefits for Utah state government, one of the largest employers in the state. An independent state agency, PEHP covers about 50,000 employees, including those at 300 Utah cities, counties, school districts and other public agencies. Counting dependents, it insures some 140,000 people.

"It's a change from what has been done," said Dee Larsen, legal counsel for Utah Retirement Systems. "We're just following state law."

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby struck down the state's ban on gay marriage Dec. 20, later clarifying that a refusal to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples is illegal. The following Monday, state benefits administrators decided spouse-dependent benefits apply to all legal spouses, Larsen said. Nearly 1,000 same-sex couples have wed in Utah since the lifting the ban.

"If a benefit was spouse-dependent and they have a new legal spouse, they can now make those changes just as anyone could before who was legally married," Larsen said.

Public employees covered by PEHP can apply to have their husbands or wives covered as dependents for health, dental and other benefits within 60 days of the marriage.

In line with its rules for other marriages, a copy of the marriage certificate is required. After the 60-day timeframe, spouses can be enrolled during their regular open enrollment period, which varies by employer.

So far, administrators are aware of at least five online applications to add same-sex spouses and others may be in the mail, Larsen said. Since every employer administers benefits separately, Larsen wasn't aware Thursday of any general notice to public employees about the change.

Meanwhile, the Utah Attorney General's Office plans to seek a stay at the U.S. Supreme Court. The state also wants the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to invalidate Shelby's ruling legalizing gay marriage.

"We'd just have to look at it ruling by ruling to see ... how that impacts us," Larsen said.

It's not yet clear exactly how the decision to cover same-sex spouses might affect agencies that offer domestic partner benefits — Salt Lake City is the only one Larsen was aware of — but it doesn't appear to jeopardize those covered by that program.

PEHP also is exploring how to treat marriages and civil unions from other jurisdictions.

For Rosky, extending benefits to same-sex spouses is about "taking care of families."

"It has very little to do with how employers feel about employees' relationships," he said. "It's just about taking care of people in emergencies when we need it the most."

Twitter: @lwhitehurst