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Gay Staff Couples to Keep Benefits

Harvard will maintain benefits for unmarried same-sex couples

By Claire Provost, Crimson Staff Writer

Though many Massachusetts employers plan to cut off same-sex domestic partnership benefits once gay marriages begins in the state next month, Harvard has no plans to alter its coverage policy.

Health benefits for cohabiting same-sex couples, which have been available from the University for over 15 years, will remain an option for Harvard employees even after same-sex marriages begin on May 17.

With the possibility of a constitutional amendment limiting marriages to opposite-sex couples, the University is “trying hard not to make changes that would be disruptive,” said Merry Touborg, spokesperson for Harvard’s Office of Human Resources.

Currently, 106 of 17,000 Harvard employees receive domestic partnership benefits, Touborg said.

They were established “to recognize the existence of long-term partners and long-term relationships that would need long-term benefits,” said Touborg.

Touborg said the University will reexamine its benefits policy sometime within the next two years.

“We expect to review our policy and might change it in the future. It is something that may be changed when the decisions about gay marriage become clearer,” Touborg said.

At that point, same-sex couples may be required to marry in order for both partners to receive the medical and dental benefits.

“For the purposes of benefits eligibility, the University may require marriage of all couples as it does currently with opposite-sex couples,” according to Touborg, who read from a policy statement set to be released next week.

Thomas H. Parry ’74, president of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus, wrote in an e-mail that he supported Harvard’s decision to maintain the domestic partnership benefits.

“Since same-sex marriage in Massachusetts is not yet a done deal, Harvard still needs to offer its gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered employees domestic partnership benefits,” he wrote.

Harvard will change its coverage policy in only one immediate way—same-sex married couples will be eligible for the same benefits as opposite-sex married couples, Touborg said.

Currently, opposite-sex domestic partnerships—heterosexual cohabiting couples—are not eligible for benefits under the logic that marriage is a viable legal option for them.

For a Harvard employee to receive medical coverage for a same-sex domestic partner, the couple must first officially register the domestic partnership in a municipality that recognizes such relationships.

Cambridge, along with Boston and Brookline, offers registration services to any same-sex domestic couple, regardless of whether they reside in one of these municipalities.

Because Harvard has many employees who reside overseas, or in other parts of the country, such as in Washington D.C., not all couples fall under Massachusetts law.

Currently, as long as the couples can register as an official domestic partnership somewhere in the United States, - they are eligible for the domestic partner benefits, Touborg said.

“We do have five partners who are registered in other places,” Touborg said.

And change will likely come at a slower pace in these places, Parry said.

“While we can all hope that enlightened legislators and citizens will vote down the proposed state constitutional amendment, Harvard also has employees in other states where change will come much more slowly,” Parry said. “So I think the administration’s decision to maintain the status quo is prudent and appropriate.”

Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, who spoke at a Harvard forum last month, said she believes that employers who drop the domestic partnership benefits are acting hastily.

The controversial gay marriage ban—which cannot be finalized until after the November 2006 elections at the earliest—would prohibit same-sex couples to marry, but would allow for civil unions.

Isaacson, who sees marriage as a gateway to legal rights, said last month that civil unions are unacceptable to the gay community because they only provide for one-third of the rights that come with a state-sanctioned marriage license.

Along with Harvard, MIT is not planning to change its same-sex domestic partner benefits this May.

Meanwhile, Boston College and Boston University do not offer these benefits.

Babson College and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center plan to drop them by Dec. 31, requiring all same-sex couples to produce a marriage certificate in order to retain their current health plans.

—Materials from the Associated Press were used in the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Claire Provost can be reached at jprovost@fas.harvard.edu.

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