The bill passed today is more modest in scope. It requires out-of-state employers to provide the same health coverage to Vermont employees with same-sex spouses that they provide to those with opposite-sex spouses.
The House passed it in a roll call vote, 139 to 5.
Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, who co-sponsored the legislation, said it’s an important step in an “ongoing process” of “peeling back the layers of discrimination.”
A federal law limits the level of parity that the Vermont Legislature can achieve in this arena, however.
That law — the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) — governs group health plans offered by employers in the private industry. If an employer is self-insured, meaning they don’t contract with an insurance company, they fall under ERISA and are not subject to state insurance law.
The bill the House passed today only requires employers to meet the health insurance standard “to the extent permitted by federal law.”
Even though the bill still leaves room for out-of-state employers to not offer the parity in coverage, Pearson argued that putting this law on the books would make them more vulnerable both to legal concerns and public opinion backlash. “It would be a front page story,” Pearson said.
Lawmakers have explored the idea behind the bill in the past, but fears of conflicting with federal law had kept them from taking any action, Pearson said.
Several representatives who voted against civil unions in 2000 stood up to say that passing this bill was common sense now that civil unions and same-sex marriages are the “law of the land.”
There were still a few lingering concerns in the chamber, however. Rep. Robert Bouchard, R-Colchester, called the legislation an invitation for a lawsuit. “It can’t really be defended,” Bouchard said.
But Rep. Thomas Koch, R-Barre, who said he has consistently been opposed to the concept of same-sex marriage, stood up to contest Bouchard’s claim. The bill, Koch said, deliberately sidesteps a potential conflict with federal law. “The challenge would come if we were dumb enough to challenge ERISA,” Koch said.