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Shriners hospitals to give gay couples benefits after Spokane complaint

Starting Jan. 1, Spokane’s Shriners Hospital for Children will extend health benefits for same-sex married partners, a change that followed a call by a hospital worker to the Washington attorney general’s office.

The change will take place at all 22 Shriners hospitals in the nation, said Spokane’s administrator, Peter Brewer.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the Spokane worker, Deb Chazell, filed a complaint with his office in September. Washington is one of more than 30 states that permit same-sex couples to marry.

“In Washington, marriage equality is the law and that means that the same health care benefits given to heterosexual married couples must be provided to same-sex married couples,” Ferguson said.

The attorney general’s office contacted Shriners officials and learned the hospital’s benefits policy defined a spouse as a member of the opposite sex.

After the hospital’s attorney reviewed the matter, Shriners administrators agreed that its benefits policy violated the state law and needed to change, Ferguson said.

He said the resolution took less time than an earlier investigation started this year when a Western Washington worker for O’Reilly Auto Parts filed a complaint about her wife being denied company health benefits.

The Missouri-based retailer initially resisted and challenged the state’s interpretation. That forced the attorney general to launch an investigation of its policies, Ferguson said.

After several months, O’Reilly backed off and changed its benefits policy on April 1. The company has more than 140 outlets in Washington.

The nonprofit Shriners hospitals provide advanced care for children with orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft palates.

Like the Shriners case, the O’Reilly change produced a widespread change in policy at all of its offices across the country, Ferguson said.

Ferguson said Chazell contacted his office within two weeks of her marriage to her partner of 19 years. The summary of her complaint said Chazell married her partner on Aug. 22 and then asked Shriners human resources staff to list her wife as a medical and dental policy dependent.

Chazell said on Aug. 29 she got an email from the HR group saying the hospital was exempt from state laws and wasn’t changing its decision to deny benefits to her spouse.

Following the legal review, the Shriners national board of trustees, based in Florida, looked at the Spokane case and sent a letter to all 22 hospitals announcing the change in policy, Brewer said.

The Shriners Hospital in Spokane has roughly 200 workers.

In addition to workers rights, the state also extends consumer protection to same-sex couples who have been targets of discrimination.

Ferguson’s office in 2013 filed a lawsuit against a Richland florist shop that refused to sell wedding flowers to a same-sex couple.

The state alleges the owner is violating state anti-discrimination laws. The owner says her religious convictions prevent her from serving same-sex couples. Ferguson said motions for summary judgment will be argued in December in that case.


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