Local News

Should county insure same-sex spouses?

— What started as a bland insurance discussion last week turned into a controversial vote on whether Highlands County should cover the spouse of a gay employee.

Before the 2.5 hour meeting concluded on May 15, Clerk of Courts Bob Germaine moved to follow the 2008 Florida Constitutional amendment and define marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. Tax Collector Eric Zwayer seconded, and Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre voted with them.

Four other members of the Highlands County Insurance Committee defeated the motion: Highlands County Commissioner Ron Handley, Parks and Recreation Director Vicki Pontius, General Services and Purchasing Manager Danielle Gilbert, and Marsha Lee, representing Sebring Airport. Supervisor of Elections Penny Ogg was not present, and her representative did not vote.

Even so, the committee chose unanimously to let the county commission decide. Same-sex spouse insurance coverage is expected to appear on the June 3 agenda, said Assistant County Administrator Randall Vosburg.

The insurance committee includes representatives of Highlands County and four of the five constitutional officers and retired employees. The sheriff’s office has a separate policy and is not on the committee.

“It needs to go before the board,” said Germaine, who won’t pay the insurance bill until they do. The commissioners “are going to have to put their big boy pants on and vote.”

County Attorney Ross Macbeth said Florida Blue Cross and Blue Shield changed its coverage.

“As a result of a recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States regarding the Defense of Marriage Act,” said a Dec. 17, 2013 Florida Blue letter to its own insurance agents, “the IRS issued a ruling that, for federal tax purposes... husband and wife now include spouses of the same sex...”

Because the company changed its policy, neither the county commission nor the insurance committee is required to act, Macbeth said.

The issue started last year when Germaine was advised by a staff member that a Highlands County employee had added a same-sex spouse to his insurance policy.

“We don’t cover same-sex spouses,” Germaine told the committee. Only the commissioners can allow that, he said.

“I want this discussed, I want those board members to understand what’s happening, that changes are being made. Have any of y’all been notified?” Germaine asked insurance committee members.

“Nobody knew about it, if that makes you feel any better,” said Handley, who chairs the insurance committee. “We need to ask Florida Blue if they make a change, they need to notify us.”

“I wasn’t notified,” County Administrator June Fisher said, but mentioned the Dec. 13 Florida Blue letter, which she received from Germaine in March.

“Someone knew,” McIntyre said, because an employee received coverage.

“The assistant county administrator asked about the ramification,” Fisher said.

“So that one person knew, but he didn’t choose to let anybody else know?” McIntyre asked.

Vosburg was at the meeting but did not speak. It wasn’t a back-door deal, he said on Thursday. He enrolled in the county’s insurance before the federal court struck down the gay marriage ban, so he inquired as a private matter whether insurance would cover his partner, whom he had married in Washington, D.C., in 2010. Vosburg said he was told that he could enroll his spouse.

Zwayer said he was notified a month ago that the Florida Blue change would automatically take effect if the county commission did not opt out.

“My biggest disappointment is that it was not discussed,” Zwayer said. “It needs to be discussed in the open, discussed the right way, and the board makes the decision.”

“This is open,” Handley pointed out. “This is a public meeting.”

“It’s not the same way (county commission) meetings are,” Zwayer said. Insurance committee meetings are sparsely attended; county commission meetings are televised and often attract dozens of people.

Florida Blue made its insurance coverage retroactive to Oct. 1, Macbeth said. “It wasn’t something that had to approved by the board... It does not have to take action to do nothing.”

“I think it’s still got to before the board, and we can back out of it,” Germaine said. “It’s just a shame that we didn’t know anything about it. Somebody should answer for this. That’s not right. It’s zero transparency.

“It would have been swept under the rug,” Germaine said. “And we all should be embarrassed that we tried to hide this.”

“I agree,” McInytre said. “This affects the insurance of our employees, and these things need to become transparent… If not, we should disband this committee, because there is no value and no significance.”

“I know that people don’t agree with my lifestyle. I get that. There are people in my own family who don’t agree with my lifestyle,” Vosburg said. However, he felt as if his integrity had been attacked.

Vosburg said he has been approached by other county employees who want to enroll gay spouses, but won’t. “They are scared to death.”