Same-sex couples may receive COBRA rights under new bill 

Rep. Jackie Speier introduced legislation last week to give same-sex couples the same right as straight couples to share COBRA health care benefits with their partners and their partners’ kids.

“The recession didn’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and neither should our safety-net policy,” Speier said.

Under federal law, COBRA — an extension of employer-provided health care benefits good for up to 36 months after being fired or quitting your job — can’t be shared with anyone except a legal spouse or dependent.

Speier’s bill — a companion to similar legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate by California Sen. Barbara Boxer in March — would change that.

“Kids are vulnerable to losing health care benefits only because their parents are in a same-sex relationship, and that’s the kind of discrimination we are trying to protect against,” said Judy Appel, executive director of Our Family Coalition, a Bay Area group that advocates for homosexual families with children. “Nobody wants kids to suffer; it doesn’t matter what your political bent is.”

While the bill has 47 bipartisan co-sponsors, it’s likely to face strong Republican opposition, in part because it would increase the cost of COBRA benefits for employers. Only employers that voluntarily offer health coverage to domestic partners would have to comply.

Currently, many companies, including half the Fortune 500, do allow health benefits to be shared with domestic partners — a legal status possessed by tens of thousands of same-sex couples in California. But under current law, if those employees lose their jobs, their partners and any nondependent children lose access to that insurance.

The bill’s reach could be huge. According to census data released last week, 21 percent of California’s estimated 125,500 same-sex couples have children.

Mark Snyder, communications coordinator at COLAGE, a group for the children of homosexual parents, said the bill is part of a wider effort to reduce discrimination against gays and lesbians in the workplace.

“Hopefully this bill will serve as a logical first step to passing a fully inclusive employment nondiscrimination act,” Snyder said.

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Niko Kyriakou

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