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Rocky benefits plan falters

Ruling sought on health plan for unwed partners

Gay rights advocates may have to put the cork back in the champagne.

Today was supposed to be the day Mayor Rocky Anderson would make Salt Lake City Utah's first governmental body to offer health benefits to the unmarried partners — be they heterosexual or homosexual — of its employees.

But that euphoria was quelled a bit after the Public Employees Health Program (PEHP) — the state agency that administers benefits for Salt Lake City — raised legal concerns about Anderson's plan Tuesday.

PEHP officials now say they will file legal action as early as this week asking a court to determine whether Anderson's push is kosher under state law.

Until it gets that legal ruling — called a declaratory judgment — from a state court, PEHP Director Linn Baker said his organization won't administer those unmarried-partner benefits for Salt Lake City.

"We need to know what the law is," Baker told the Deseret Morning News on Tuesday.

Baker said "some state legislators that have already made public statements" against Anderson's plan contacted PEHP and raised the legal questions that prompted PEHP's nervousness.

Jodi Langford, Salt Lake City's employee benefits administrator, confirmed that PEHP backed off because "they have received pressure from individuals" in state government.

Undeterred, Anderson said he will go ahead and sign the executive order today — an announcement that brought cheers from gay rights advocates who have longed for access to benefits for unmarried partners.

In a perfect world, Baker said, by the time Salt Lake City offers employees a chance to sign up for the new benefits, PEHP will have its legal ruling.

Salt Lake City's next opening for employees to change their benefit plans is in November. That would be the first time employees would be able to add their unmarried partners onto their insurance. The city expects between 10 and 20 employees will take advantage, costing the city between $38,000 and $113,000. Baker said PEHP will file for a judgement as soon as possible to hopefully have it in hand by that time.

"You would hope that by the time the city wants this to be effective, we would have an order from the court," he said.

The city, which is self-insured but contracts with PEHP to administer its health-care claims, could end its tie with the state agency and find a new company in the private sector to work with.

But that move could be financially impossible. Currently, the non-profit PEHP costs the city about $600,000 to $800,000 annually. A similar contract with a private company would cost between $1.8 million and $5.2 million per year, Langford said.

The mayor questioned why PEHP waited this long to raise questions. After all, he said, "They've been working with us for months on this."

The mayor is certain his plan is legal and called the move for a declaratory judgement "a waste of money."

City Attorney Ed Rutan agreed, saying "There's no question in my mind what the mayor wants to do is legal."

State Rep. Lavar Christensen, R-Draper, who has been an outspoken opponent of unmarried partner benefits, said he contacted PEHP some time ago to get more information about their policies regarding dependent benefits and how those polices might jibe with Anderson's proposal.

Christensen, an attorney by trade, said Anderson and Rutan are dead wrong about state law. The state's Marriage Recognition Statute prohibits what Salt Lake City plans to do, he said.

The law, enacted in 2004, reads in part: "This state will not recognize, enforce or give legal effect to any law creating any legal status, rights, benefits or duties that are substantially equivalent to those provided under Utah law to a man and a woman because they are married."

Christensen said Anderson's executive order is law in Salt Lake City and therefore violates state code.

"A mayor can't just go off by himself like a lone ranger and then just dare people to sue to undo what he does," Christensen said.

He also maintains PEHP's internal policies only define dependents in terms of marriage and therefore can't harmonize with Anderson's order. PEHP is different from private groups that offer similar unmarried dependent benefits because it is a state agency, Christensen said.

While at least one state school, the University of Utah, allows benefits for its employees' unmarried partners, those partners have to pay the full cost of those benefits so there is no taxpayer subsidy like there would be in Salt Lake City's case, Christensen said.

The mayor, Christensen said, has done too many things to anger conservative state lawmakers.

"You filed one suit (the Legacy Parkway lawsuit) that cost the state $200 million, you challenged the (Main Street) plaza deal and now you've got this," Christensen said.

He called the mayor's plan "a shortcut to advance his personal beliefs" and undercut the state's interest in preserving marriage as the bedrock of society.