A requirement within a new domestic partner benefit plan at the University of Florida -- that participants “have been in a non-platonic relationship for the proceeding 12 months” -- has left many employees feeling like the university was getting a little too personal. Administrators have taken notice and said that the policy will be changed within the next two weeks.
The HMO health plan, which is sponsored through AvMed, currently requires eligible employees and their partners to complete an enrollment form and sign an affidavit, which includes the contentious “non-platonic” criterion. An open enrollment period is currently in effect through January 31. In 2005, the University of Florida became the first public university in the state to offer insurance benefits to same-sex partners.
“Our intent was not to convey that a gay or lesbian couple has had to have had physical intimacy,” Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president for human resources at the university, said Monday. “We just wanted a way to prove that roommates weren’t going to be able to sign up for the plan.”
Last week, Cavanaugh had explained during a University of Florida Faculty Senate meeting that such clauses were becoming “increasingly standard” as a method to ensure that employers are covering only those employees who are in committed relationships. A spokesman with the university repeated this information on Monday, and Cavanaugh said that a number of clauses were looked at in the creation of the plan, although he did not point to specific ones when asked.
Daryl Herrschaft, a director with the Human Rights Campaign, which fights against bias based on sexual orientation, said that this was the first time in his career that he had heard of such a clause. “I think it is inappropriate and unnecessary for an employer to have that kind of information,” he said. “The best domestic partnership policies are ones that treat employees -- both gay and straight -- the same.”
For heterosexual couples, Herrschaft added, “nothing is usually asked about bedroom habits.” Often, a request to see a marriage certificate is one main requirement to sign up for a health benefits plan, he said.
Several faculty members, upon learning about the requirement, had problems with the plan. Last week, Marylou Behnke, a faculty member who practices pediatric medicine at the university’s medical school, said that she found the criterion “offensive” because heterosexual couples are not asked to verify their sexual activities in order to receive health coverage through the university.
With the ensuing scrutiny of the program, Cavanaugh has said that the university plans to “rectify the situation” by February. “Responses to the clause have caused us to take a hard look at it,” said Cavanaugh. “It’s not meant to convey what some are taking it to mean. We will not be policing people’s bedroom habits.”
Because the clause has “evoked some level of confusion,” Cavanaugh said that administrators have begun the process of reevaluating it and added that he “anticipated that we will drop it within the next two weeks.” He indicated that the plan’s vendor has expressed “openness” to dropping the controversial requirement.
Herrschaft said that this process should not be that difficult, since “there are many other ways to establish a domestic partner relationship.” He said that many of the provisions in the current plan, like providing evidence of joint finances and expressing “emotional commitment,” are sufficient and positive ways to address the issue.
Herrschaft also said that he’s glad to hear that the university has taken it upon itself to correct the issue. “Sexual orientation is not a protected category in Florida,” he explained. “Remedies under the law would probably not be successful.”
Cavanaugh said that despite the controversy, he wants gay couples to know that they are supported at the university. He estimated that 120 people will ultimately sign up for coverage.
According to a 2005 report by the Human Rights Campaign, almost 300 colleges and universities had benefit plans that included domestic partners. In 1999, that number was 120.