State benefits expanded to cover unmarried couples

The Nevada Public Employees Benefits Program voted Monday to expand coverage to unmarried couples and their dependents.

PEBP Director Leslie Johnstone said the board decided to include both same-sex and opposite-sex couples as well as dependents. She said the board voted 5-3 to recommend the state subsidize those dependents at the same rate they subsidize dependents of married couples.

But, she said, they put some strict restrictions on those seeking to get the benefits.

"They have to be 18 years of age and attest that they are in a sole, committed relationship, not married to anybody else and not related by blood," she said. "That they are mutually responsible for each other, that they have lived together for at least six months."

She said the couple has to sign an affidavit and they will be advised that, if that affidavit is fraudulent, they can be prosecuted for felony insurance fraud.

"The board wanted to make it a conscientious process with some kind of verification it is a committed relationship so it wasn't like, 'Oh, you need open-heart surgery? Sign this form,'" Johnstone said.

"We wanted to put the onus on the affidavit so we didn't have to collect a lot of documentation and try interpret that," she said.

Johnstone said, however, the expanded benefits won't be available to those couples probably until July 2009 when the Legislature adjourns.

She said regulations have to be written by her staff and the affidavit developed by the attorney general's office. She said there will be a workshop to start that process Feb. 7 with a hearing to adopt them May 1. Then those regulations and the affidavit have to go before the Legislative Commission for approval.

The cost of subsidizing those partners and dependents, she said, will come to about $3 million, which she said would be put into a decision unit in PEBP's budget.

Lee Rowland, of the American Civil Liberties Union, praised the decision, saying it is not only the right thing to do but "good business" since it will help attract couples who might not otherwise consider state or university service in Nevada.

ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Gary Peck also applauded the board, saying it "had the vision and courage to do the right thing by extending these benefits to people who clearly deserve them."

But Nevada Concerned Citizens Chairman Richard Ziser, who led the drive five years ago to ban gay marriages in Nevada, said offering such benefits would require a new "definition of a spouse" in Nevada law, and the board, as a nonelected body, doesn't have that authority.

He also questioned why the board would back increasing expenses when the governor is having to cut budgets.

Peck responded that Nevada's Protection of Marriage Act has nothing to do with benefits.

The original request to include domestic partners in the state health plan came from the Nevada System of Higher Education. University and college presidents told the board in June that extending benefits to partners is essential to their ability to recruit top professors and administrators.

• The Associated Press contributed to this story. Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.

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