90.3 WBHM Birmingham--It's been a whirlwind spring for advocates of same sex marriage. Four states -- Iowa, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire -- recognized such marriages. That flurry of activity is drawing attention to the concerns of gays and lesbians. But that conversation seems largely absent in Alabama.

WBHM kicks off a weeklong look at some of those issues in a series called "Gay/Straight in Alabama." We begin with the workplace. Diversity statements or equal opportunity policies are not unusual, but for some gays and lesbians those words are not enough. WBHM's Andrew Yeager has this look at domestic partner benefits in Alabama.

Cecil Betros and Michael Lee had a little trouble getting together. They met online, but their busy schedules kept them from meeting in person. When they finally did, Betros says...

"It was like this instant click. Opposites do attract."

That was 14 years ago. Now they relax in easy chairs at home after work. Their poodle Crystal lies on the floor.

"Crystal, here's your ball. Come here, get your ball so Daddy can play with you?"

Crystal doesn't looks particularly interested in the ball.

For Betros and Lee there's no question about their lives together. It's a committed, life-long, same sex relationship. The only thing that will separate them now, they say, is death. The two have tried to formalize that relationship through careful wording in legal documents such as wills and healthcare proxies. But they don't have the same benefits which come with a formally recognized, heterosexual marriage.

"Well it makes you feel like a second class citizen. It's like, 'Okay, you are gay and that's fine, but we're not going to recognize you as that.'"

One part of that for Betros and Lee is the fact they can't access the benefits heterosexual, married couples typically get in the workplace, most notably healthcare. Now to be clear, the issue is not getting healthcare. Both are employed and have health insurance through their employers. They just don't have the option of adding one another to their respective plans. Michael Lee says it would make a difference to their pocket book.

"It would be a big savings for him to get on my insurance because the co-pays are less, the prescription pays are less."

In recent decades, some employers have been extending to same sex couples the benefits heterosexual, married couples receive. Ken McDonnell is with the Employee Benefit Research Institute. He says these domestic partner benefits originally began in technology companies and along the coasts.

"But it's lately become more universal. It's basically now a non-issue."

McDonnell cites a survey by the Human Rights Campaign which shows 83 of the Fortune 100 companies offered domestic partner benefits in 2008. Things look a little different in Alabama, though. It's not that you can't get such benefits. If you work for, say, Home Depot or AT&T, they're offered no matter where you are. A couple large Alabama-based companies, such as Regions, offer domestic partner benefits. But the state's largest health insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, only offers the benefits to self-insured customers. And the area's largest employer, UAB, does not offer them at all.

"Domestic partner benefits is such a simple solution."

Michael Saag is director of UAB's Center for AIDS Research. He says domestic partner benefits do come up, particularly in retaining staff. Saag says sometimes when researchers gain national attention, other institutions come calling, and they often offer domestic partner benefits. Saag says offering those benefits represents not just a financial incentive...

"But it also says we've thought about you. Not only have we thought about you and who you are, we embrace who you are. To the point where we say to you, 'We are accepting of diverse lifestyles.'"

Saag says UAB has grown in stature to where its medical programs do compete for faculty with the Johns Hopkins or the Harvards. But Saag says when it comes to recruiting, having no domestic partner benefits, combined with Birmingham's historic images of dogs and fire hoses -- some people won't even apply.

"We don't appear to embrace diversity despite the fact we have policies in our web site or whatever that say we are an equal opportunity employer. Well, if we are, let's show it."

Officials with the University of Alabama System declined to comment for this story. However, the university's employee benefits' committee is considering a proposal for domestic partner benefits. A spokeswoman for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama declined an interview for this story as well, but said in a statement that for the majority of their customers, there has been no real demand for coverage of domestic partners.

Advocates may see this as an issue of equality, but there are dollars and cents at work too. Ken McDonnell with the Employee Benefit Research Institute says when companies began offering domestic partner benefits, they were concerned about higher costs of HIV and AIDS claims. So some added a charge, but he says most dropped it within a year when those costs didn't materialize.

"It's no different that adding any other legally married spouse."

For Michael Lee and Cecil Betros, they do see themselves as a committed pair whether recognized or not. And as far as Betros is concerned, domestic partner benefits are a matter of fairness.

"It is not fair in today's society for people who have been together as long as we have not to be able to get and reap those benefits."

Benefits available in many places and many offices. In Alabama, a bit less so.


~ Andrew Yeager, June 22, 2009

More | Domestic Partner Benefits Fact Sheet from the Employee Benefit Research Institute