June 6, 2014 in Region

State officials: Companies offering health benefits must cover same-sex spouses

By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – Businesses that offer health coverage to opposite-sex spouses must also offer it to same-sex spouses, state officials said Thursday. Insurance plans must offer equal coverage to all spouses.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler and Human Rights Commission Executive Director Sharon Ortiz issued an open letter to the state’s employers, insurance companies and benefit plan administrators that state law requires same-sex and opposite-sex spouses to be offered equal health coverage. Otherwise, they run afoul of state laws that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The letter follows on the heels of an agreement the attorney general’s office reached with O’Reilly Automotive Inc. this spring to extend health benefits to same-sex couples after the state received a consumer protection complaint. It’s not possible to send the letter to every employer in the state, Ferguson said, so the three held a joint news conference and sent the information to various email lists.

The state banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in 2006, and voters approved a law legalizing same-sex marriage in 2012.

Ferguson said his office had only one other complaint of a company not providing health care benefits to same-sex partners and “can’t take a guess” on how many others might be violating the law. But if O’Reilly, a large national company with what he termed sophisticated legal advice could be out of compliance, others could too, he said.

Kreidler said letters were going out to the 48 insurance companies operating in the state, although his office has not received any complaints about carriers failing to offer benefits to same-sex couples. While it’s possible an employer could drop benefits for opposite-sex spouses to comply with the law, the financial impact of covering the additional spouses is relatively minor, he added.

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