Politics & Government

Kansas opens state workers’ health plan to same-sex spouses

“We’re accepting applications from same-sex spouses of state employees starting this morning,” said Sara Belfry, spokeswoman for KDHE, the agency that oversees the state employee health plan. “If someone applies today, the effective date would be August 1.”
“We’re accepting applications from same-sex spouses of state employees starting this morning,” said Sara Belfry, spokeswoman for KDHE, the agency that oversees the state employee health plan. “If someone applies today, the effective date would be August 1.” File photo

TOPEKA – Newly married same-sex couples in Kansas have begun to enjoy some of the same benefits as heterosexual couples, including changing a last name or adding a spouse to a health plan.

Same-sex spouses of state workers and public university employees can apply for the state’s health insurance plan through the Kansas Department of Health and Environment or a school’s human resources department.

The policy change will affect several thousand people, including the children of state workers who may not have been eligible for coverage previously because the state did not recognize their parents’ marriage, said Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, a gay rights organization.

“My partner and I struggled for years with how to keep our children insured because our relationship was not recognized by the state of Kansas. We raised a daughter and that was a challenge,” Witt said. “This is going to make it a lot easier for stable, healthy families to keep their kids healthy.”

A federal court struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage in November, but Gov. Sam Brownback instructed state agencies to hold off on recognizing same-sex marriages. After a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month, Kansas agencies did not immediately update their policies.

Jim Peters, director of the Osher Lifelong Institute at the University of Kansas, said he will be able to add his husband, Gary Mohrman, to his health plan. Mohrman is a freelance illustrator who had to get insurance through the federal health exchange.

“What it means is better health care coverage at a more reasonable cost and for us more importantly that we’re being treated as equals, that we are recognized by the state of Kansas as every other couple,” Peters said.

The couple have been together for 35 years and married in Iowa in 2010. They are plaintiffs in a still pending lawsuit against the state for recognition of same-sex couples.

Peters said KDHE’s policy change means that his husband will now be eligible for dental coverage and for wellness programs through KU. It also means that if an accident happens, he can visit his husband in the hospital and make decisions on his behalf, “like every other couple does.”

Changes to other programs overseen by KDHE, such as Medicaid eligibility for same-sex spouses, are still being hammered out, said Sara Belfry, spokeswoman for KDHE.

Terry Fox, a Wichita pastor who is an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, said recognizing these marriages and providing these benefits creates an “extra burden financially” for the state.

“We’re talking millions of dollars,” Fox said. He contended that people who thought same-sex marriage would not affect them will “find out that gay marriage is going to affect them a lot more financially than they first thought about.”

Jeannine Koranda, spokeswoman for the Department of Revenue, said that agency has updated its policy so that same-sex couples can change their names on their driver’s licenses if they present their marriage certificate.

The agency has not yet made changes to tax policy to enable same-sex couples to file income taxes jointly, she said.

“We are going through the policies and procedures to see what may need to be changed,” Koranda said in an e-mail.

Peters said he and his husband had to file nine different tax returns this past year because the federal government recognized their marriage but the state didn’t.

Witt said all the Department of Revenue has to do to resolve the issue is accept and process same-sex couples’ income tax returns.

“Quit forcing people to prepare extra paperwork, separating out their already completed tax return,” Witt said. “This is easy. Just accept the returns. Quit rejecting them.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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