Same-Sex Benefits Proposal Still on the Table at City Hall 

A proposal to provide access to health insurance and other benefits for married, same-sex partners of city employees is getting broader in scope.

Fifth District City Councilman Parker C. Agelasto submitted the initial proposal in July, calling for married, same-sex partners of employees to have the same access to benefits as straight partners. But it would be unenforceable unless the General Assembly allows government entities to offer such benefits.

The council’s Government Operations Committee asked for specifics at a hearing last month. Agelasto plans to submit a new version Oct. 24, spelling out more details and extending benefits beyond same-sex partners to other qualified adults — or OQA — which essentially gives employees a plus-one to add to their benefit plans.

“Marriage equality is about equality, but the benefits are about how an employer relates to an employee,” Agelasto says. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act opened the opportunity “to be on the right side of this going forward,” he says, “but the more conversations we’ve had, we’ve heard, ‘Well wait, there are other populations not receiving equal treatment.’”

Equality Virginia has lobbied for the OQA plan as a way to include live-in partners, relatives and others who aren’t married. It’s a widely adopted practice in the corporate world, with Altria Group, CarMax and Capital One among the Virginia companies offering the coverage. Virginia law still bars government agencies from offering it.

James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, says the group discussed OQA at the end of Gov. Tim Kaine’s administration, but in the transition to Gov. Bob McDonnell the process “pretty much got shut down.”

“It’s nice to see our local governments start addressing this issue because our state government won’t,” Parrish says. “It’s not if marriage equality is coming to Virginia, it’s when. And it’s good local governments are paying attention to that reality even if it’s just symbolically.”

While the measure isn’t enforceable, Bill Harrison, executive director of the Gay Community Center of Richmond, says it will be useful politically.

“The city cannot legally do this,” he says, “but we will use this as another argument when we approach the General Assembly this year and say that we need to change this law.”

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