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Insurance benefits targeted by bill

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A Draper lawmaker is sponsoring a bill that appears to be aimed at Salt Lake City's efforts to offer insurance benefits to unmarried couples.

The bill would allow public employers — cities and other governmental entities — to offer supplemental insurance to whomever they wish. The catch, however, is that the employees who use the supplemental insurance must pay for it themselves; no public money can be used to subsidize the additional coverage.

Rep. LaVar Christensen, a Republican, also included a provision that would prohibit the insurance being offered by executive order or by a chief executive officer, such as Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson.

Christensen characterized the bill, HB327, as a public policy statement.

"This would address statewide what the proposed conditions are under which it would be appropriate to expand the available insurance benefits for public employees beyond the status quo," Christensen said. "To what extent the public tax dollars be used to expand that coverage? Under what terms, conditions and principles should we consider expanding benefits for public employees?"

The House Retirement and Independent Entities committee is scheduled to hear the bill today at 1 p.m.

Anderson declared by executive order in September that domestic partners of city employees could receive health insurance under the city's agreement with the Public Employees Health Plan. PEHP asked a judge to decide whether Anderson's order was legal, and then an Arizona law group and several Salt Lake residents sued to block the order. Third District Court Judge Stephen Roth heard the case Jan. 5 and has not ruled yet.

Christensen was a vocal critic of Anderson's order and predicted the legal challenge in September, as well as the possibility of opposing legislation.

"I'm afraid that many people don't understand how cruel and hurtful they are toward others because of harsh, bigoted judgments," Anderson said. "Just as we look back at racial hatred and the intermarriage bans, so too will people look back with sadness and dismay at the meanness that some people in our society have toward our gay brothers and lesbian sisters. We should all be striving for greater understanding, love and compassion."

After Anderson's order, the City Council drafted an ordinance that would offer insurance to adult designees — parents, siblings, roommates, partners or friends — who lived with the employee. In a straw poll several weeks ago, the council passed the ordinance unanimously and they will consider the measure formally at its Feb. 7 meeting.

"If we do adopt this on Feb. 7, we'll still have three to four weeks to work with" Christensen before the legislative session ends on March 1, said Dave Buhler, the council chairman. "As a state lawmaker, he has the right to pass whatever he feels he should. Personally, I think that cities should be able to determine which benefits they want to provide."

The advantage to being on a group health plan is that the higher the number of people on the plan, the more employees there are to absorb increased health care costs, said Jennifer Bruno, a policy analyst for the City Council. If Salt Lake City ends up following the direction in Christensen's bill, she said the city likely would have to create a separate premium structure for the adult designees. Instead of a group of 1,500 people, though, it would be between 50 and 100, Bruno said.

"It would mean that it would be a lot more expensive. There's not as much of a cushion there," she said.

Christensen cited the University of Utah as a model for his bill. At the university, employees can elect to have extra insurance coverage, but they must pay for all the premiums — no university money fills the gap between what employees contribute and the actual cost of coverage, said Coralie Alder, a spokeswoman for the university.

E-mail: kswinyard@desnews.com