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More employers offering same sex health care benefits

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St. Luke’s University Health Network is the most recent Greater Lehigh Valley employer offering health care benefits to same sex domestic partners. It joins a growing list of companies providing coverage for same sex domestic partners.

St. Luke’s offered benefit eligible employees the opportunity to enroll their same sex spouse or same sex domestic partner in St. Luke’s benefit plans and programs as of Jan. 1, 2014.

Six people completed the application for the benefits out of more than 9,500 employees, according to Robert Zimmel, senior vice president, human resources at St. Luke’s.

“We are pleased to be able to offer these benefits to same sex couples and domestic partners as part of our commitment to diversity and as a way to continue to retain and attract the best people to maintain St. Luke’s position as the leading healthcare provider in the region,” Zimmel said.

St. Luke’s is not alone in offering same sex employee benefits, the result in part from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last June that struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act.

The decision struck down Section 3 of DOMA, which had limited the definition of “marriage” and “spouse” to opposite sex unions, and made same sex spouses eligible for the same privileges as opposite sex spouses regarding federal laws and taxes.

Many employers then began offering same sex domestic partner benefits in states where same sex couples had no option to marry.

But others, including Lehigh Valley Health Network, already offered benefits to same sex domestic partners.

“We have offered same sex domestic partner benefits since 2009, for medical and dental insurance,” said Brian Downs, a spokesperson for LVHN. “At last check, in late 2013, we have 34 employees who have selected same sex domestic partner benefits.”

PPL, based in Allentown, has extended health benefits to same sex domestic partners since 2008.

“We believe that extending benefit coverage to same sex domestic partners is the right thing to do,” said George Lewis, director of corporate communications at PPL. “It enhances the diversity of our workforce and helps us in recruiting, as we compete with other employers to find talented people for available jobs.”

Lewis acknowledged that benefits are not extended to opposite sex domestic partners because they have the option of legally marrying in Pennsylvania. Same sex domestic partners do not have the option of legally marrying in Pennsylvania.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that as of last year, 31 percent of workers in private industry had access to same sex domestic partner health care benefits. Among Fortune 500 companies, that number rises to 87 percent.

Walmart announced in August – after the Supreme Court ruling – that it would begin offering benefits to domestic partners on Jan. 1. Walmart will cover both same sex and opposite sex domestic partners. Walmart is the second largest employer in the U.S., after the federal government.

A domestic partnership is defined as partners of the same or opposite sex in an ongoing, exclusive relationship similar to marriage for at least 12 months, with the intention to continue sharing a household indefinitely.

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