Editor's Note: Guest blogger Bob Witeck, native citizen of Virginia, is a graduate of the University of Virginia (1974) and CEO/co-founder of Witeck-Combs Communications, which specializes in consulting with corporations and nonprofits on LGBT households, marketing, and public relations.
For several years, Virginia's leaders, including Gov. Tim Kaine, have been urged to bring the commonwealth's outdated, unfair personnel policies for our public universities in line with those of major corporate employers and private universities in Virginia and across the nation.
We will make that happen by improving state health insurance benefits in a sensible, affordable way that treats all faculty and staff members' households equally -- and protects our universities from falling behind in an increasingly competitive market for talented educators, administrators, and employees who share a residence with a same-sex adult.
How can Virginia afford to stay out of step? Almost 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies today choose to offer such expanded benefits to their employees. At least 12 Virginia-based Fortune 500 companies and other major employers offer such benefits, including: Altria Group, Capital One, CarMax, Dominion Resources, Genworth, MeadWestvaco, Northrop Grumman/Newport News Shipbuilding, and Owens & Minor.
Sixteen state governments and 152 city and county governments also offer expanded access to health insurance benefits to their employees. Finally, don't forget leading universities and colleges such as Harvard, Duke, Furman, Wake Forest, Washington & Lee, Georgetown, George Washington, Sweet Briar, Hollins, Penn State, and Davidson.
This approach is widely supported by the public. In a poll conducted nationally by Harris Interactive in August 2009, more than two-thirds of the 2,700 American adults surveyed agreed that all employees, regardless of sexual orientation, should be able to have their spouse or same-sex adult partner included under their health insurance benefits. State educators, including University of Virginia president John Casteen, have affirmed past public support for equal access to health benefits in league with all Virginia public colleges and universities. Over the years, there have been countless expressions of support from a cross-section of Virginia educators, students, trustees, and alums.
We need not forge a new path, nor violate the ban on relationship recognition in Virginia's constitution. Instead we will find a solid example in Michigan -- or much closer to home, at Georgetown University, one of our nation's most respected private Catholic universities. Michigan and the Catholic Church do not officially recognize same-sex marriage in any form -- but that did not stand in the way either in Michigan or at Georgetown. As a matter of rightness, economic competitiveness, and basic job and benefits equity, Michigan's universities make health insurance eligibility open to an employee's "other qualified adult," and in Georgetown's case benefits are open to a "legally domiciled adult," who is not the employee's spouse.
These health plans are smartly crafted. They carefully limit eligibility and coverage (e.g., plainly ruling out roommates, household employees, friends, or co-tenants, for instance) to avoid potential abuses and to ensure individuals not entitled to benefits will not receive them.
In Virginia we also can take cost off the table by directing our state's insurance vendors to make expanded eligibility possible -- at the expense of the insured household. This would make affordable health insurance available to more Virginia households connected with our vital universities and colleges at no taxpayer cost.
This fair-minded policy is sensible, nonpartisan, and pro-business. Gov. Kaine, as well as gubernatorial candidates Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell, signal their unflagging commitment to new jobs and business growth in the commonwealth along with their strong support for higher education. McDonnell pointed the way to benefits equity in a 2007 opinion affirming the University of Virginia's ability to offer gym membership benefits to another adult sharing a mutual residence with an employee -- a policy smoothly implemented over the past two years.
Why does it matter? Don't ask me. Instead, ask the Virginia academic development professional who raises millions for his institution, yet is denied affordable health benefits for his partner as he fought cancer the past few years. Ask the outstanding college professor who is torn by generous offers from Ivy League schools that immediately extend full benefits to her adult partner and children. Ask the future faculty star at Duke, Georgetown, Michigan State, or MIT who would never dream of accepting a prized Virginia faculty position if his or her partner is left behind, unlike a married spouse.
It is time for Gov. Kaine to lead. It is time for all leaders in Virginia to become part of the solution. This is not about ideology or politics. It is about keeping our universities competitive nationally -- and our commonwealth having the decency to enable our employees to buy this coverage.
Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.