Georgetown's New Benefits for Gays

November 8, 2005

Gay and lesbian faculty and staff members at Georgetown University are saying a rhetorical "amen” to new guidelines that will provide health insurance for their same-sex partners, starting January 1. More and more colleges each year provide some benefits for gay professors’ partners, but the trend is notably less evident at Roman Catholic institutions, making Georgetown’s move significant.

Last Tuesday, Spiros Dimolitsas, senior vice president, announced that the President’s Executive Committee approved a policy to expand medical insurance to "a new category of individuals, legally domiciled adults (LDAs)."

The policy states that faculty and staff members who are eligible for benefits will have the option to choose a coverage plan for themselves and either a spouse or one LDA. The LDA must be either someone “with whom the person has a close personal relationship and is financially interdependent, or a dependent blood relative such as an elderly parent or grown child.”

For an LDA to be eligible, employees must live with the individual and he or she must not otherwise have access to group health care coverage.

“We reviewed many issues in formulating this policy and believe that expanding our current offerings in this way will increase access to quality health care benefits to more members of the Georgetown University community in keeping with our commitment as a Catholic, Jesuit University to respond to the human needs of others,” said Dimolitsas in a letter to faculty members announcing the additions.

“At the end of the day, it was very clear that this was the right thing to do for our community,” said spokeswoman Julie Green Bataille in an interview Monday.

Tommaso Astarita, a co-founder of the Georgetown Gay and Lesbian Faculty Group, didn’t expect the policy to come into effect so rapidly. Because the university is deeply rooted in Catholic and Jesuit underpinnings, he felt that there might be some controversy or debate about whether the university should take this step.

Earlier this year, Astarita helped draft a letter to the Faculty Senate indicating that Georgetown should follow the lead of many public and private institutions -- and a couple of religious universities in California -- in offering same-sex partner benefits. The letter was signed by dozens of faculty members -- straight and gay.

For the most part, the history professor and director of undergraduate studies is happy with the policy, but he’s not fond of the term LDA. "It’s a little peculiar that the policy clearly has to do with same-sex couples, but it never mentions them explicitly," Astarita said Monday.

“We used the term LDA to address the concerns of some members of our community, but also increase the opportunity for those who might have other needs to be able to provide health care coverage, whether its an elderly parent or a grown child,” said Green Bataille.

Scott Schmidt, an undergraduate at Georgetown from 1992-1995 who ultimately graduated from the University of Southern California, writes the blog, where he often covers gay civil liberties issues. He said Monday that he wishes the policy’s language could be stronger. “They can't just extend benefits to gay couples, because that would contradict the theological underpinnings of the community, so this compromise plan appears to be a way to have their non-discriminatory cake and eat it too,” he said. “As a Catholic institution, Georgetown's policy cannot stray too far from Rome's doctrines. Yet there is also an undercurrent that wants to be progressive on social issues like this.”

“I really don’t care what they call it frankly,” said Astarita, “as long as they’re doing it right, which remains to be seen.”

Even the university administrators who put the plan in place note that it might not make sense for many employees:  “LDA coverage may have tax and other legal implications that you should discuss with an attorney as you consider this option,” said Dimolitsas last week.

Because federal law would require individuals to pay taxes on the medical coverage benefits, Astarita said the costs could be “insurmountable” for many. “These things are a little more symbolic than practical for most people,” he said. “I honestly don’t think there will be a large number of people who jump into this.”

Another downside is that the policy fails to provide dental coverage to LDAs.  Green Bataille said that “it hasn’t been determined” if dental coverage will be coming in future years.

Astarita, still surprised by the symbolical win, said that his goal in writing the initial letter was not to get a perfect policy right out of the gate: “We are a religious institution in a position of national prominence,” he said. “I think it definitely can’t hurt that Georgetown has moved forward on this issue.”

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