Vermont House votes to expand health insurance rights of same-sex couples

Rep. Chris Pearson. VTD/Josh Larkin

Rep. Chris Pearson. VTD/Josh Larkin

Thirteen years to the day after the Vermont House Chamber voted to legalize civil unions, it made another move to expand rights for same sex couples.

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.

Alicia Freese

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  • Lori Ranney

    Why can’t we find out our much all of this health care is going to cost the taxpayers of Vermont? Instead they keep adding more to be covered without tell us how much this is going to cost us.

    Very irresponsible of our Governor and Legislature.

    Living in Vermont is Unsustainable for many Vermonters..

  • Sheryl Rapee-Adams

    There’s no special benefit here, just plain old equality. Spousal and family coverage must apply to all who are legally recognized as such. My husband and I are proud of the Vermont legislature. It’s time for the U.S. to follow suit and end discrimination.

  • Ernest McLeod

    Thank you to the overwhelming number of lawmakers in the Vermont House who recognized that in a state that values equality, employers based out-of-state should provide to married gay couples the same benefits they provide to married heterosexual couples. I’m proud of my state and my legislators for–13 years after the historic CU vote–still working to make sure that VT’s lgbt citizens are treated no differently than anyone else. It is not unreasonable to expect any company that does business in VT to respect the fair-mindedness that has long characterized our state. This bill is of a piece with ending DOMA so that all VT marriages receive equal federal recognition.

  • Harriet Cady

    I have to wonder if the vermont House and Senate rules of consuct state that if there is a benefit to a voting member they will abstain.
    To often I see lawyers and special interests such as those in the legislature who are homosexual or lesbien voting on bills which benefit their interests.
    Time for an ethical check on the votes in my opinion.

    • John Greenberg

      So naturally, you’d have all the heterosexual members abstain from any laws about sexuality, marriage, etc. which have an impact on THEM; only atheists could vote on any rule affecting religion; and no parents could vote on laws about children. Fair’s fair, right?

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