published Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

Collegedale, Tenn., may further widen who gets health benefits

Detective Kat Cooper, left, holds the hand of her mother Linda, right, and speaks with her wife, Krista, at a Collegedale Commission workshop Monday. City officials discussed extending benefits to same-sex partners. Cooper has been with the Collegedale Police Department for over 11 years, and she and Krista were married in Maryland in May.
Detective Kat Cooper, left, holds the hand of her mother Linda, right, and speaks with her wife, Krista, at a Collegedale Commission workshop Monday. City officials discussed extending benefits to same-sex partners. Cooper has been with the Collegedale Police Department for over 11 years, and she and Krista were married in Maryland in May.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
WHAT'S NEXT

The board of commissioners will meet Aug. 5 at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 4910 Swinyar Drive.

Collegedale, poised to become the first Tennessee city to extend health benefits to employees' same-sex partners, may broaden who is eligible for those benefits even further.

City Commissioner Katie Lamb said the city should consider providing health insurance to employees and their partners -- whether they are partners through a civil union or even common law marriage.

She said a common law married employee should not be denied access to family insurance.

"I just don't see the point in discriminating against anybody," Lamb said.

Commissioners talked about the domestic partner policy for about 45 minutes during an agenda session. Last month, the five-member board voted 4-1 to extend family benefits to any city employee in a domestic partnership after Detective Kat Cooper, an 11-year Collegedale police veteran, requested benefits for her wife, Krista. The couple married in Maryland this spring.

Cooper was among those listening to Monday's discussion. She was encouraged Monday evening at the sight of progress but frustrated as Krista's health remains in the balance.

"Every month, we're playing Russian roulette with her health," she said. During an MRI Monday morning, Cooper said she was reminded again how much the policy means.

"I thought, 'I don't want to be here,'" she said, "but then I thought, 'I'm so thankful it's me and not her.'"

The couple almost moved a year ago to avoid such pitfalls, but Cooper refused to leave an 11-year career and her home, even though it is a state that doesn't recognize her marriage.

The lack of state recognition casts more gray on the legitimacy of marriage, and Monday evening Collegedale City Manager Ted Rogers said the entire issue is "quite complicated."

In addition, he said extending family health insurance to employees in nontraditional families will cost the city more. The city pays about $4,000 a year per employee for single coverage, and about $10,000 for family coverage.

"Costs should be considered," he said.

But some commissioners felt differently.

"I don't want to enter into cost being a factor in this decision," Vice Mayor Tim Johnson said.

He said it is his wish to see homosexual employees treated the same as their heterosexual counterparts.

"I want to treat all families equally," he said.

Lamb said that should include all couples in a civil union or a common law marriage, too. Tennessee and Georgia do not recognize common law marriage, but neighboring states Alabama and South Carolina do.

These questions, Rogers said, convolute the interpretation of the city's benefits policy.

"At what point do you set down a standard, do you draw the line and say, 'This is a family?'" he said.

Rogers said from the administrative side, the city is looking for proof of marriage, whether it is same-sex, traditional, common law or a civil union. He suggested the commission stipulate that a "document of marriage" be mandatory to file for city benefits.

City Attorney Sam Elliot said the term "document of marriage" should be adequate to qualify civil unions and common law marriages for benefits.

"Some states just don't want to call [same-sex marriages] marriage, so they call it a civil union," he said. But otherwise, the two are about the same legally, he said.

The commission could vote as early as Aug. 5 on the issue. But with Collegedale's insurance provider starting its year in January, no changes will take effect until then.

"You've got time," Rogers told the commission Monday, after some commissioners expressed interest in tweaking wording in the insurance policy. He said a vote could wait until fall.

"Our carrier basically recommends that they will cover whatever we tell them to cover," he said.

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6731.

about Alex Green...

Alex Green joined the Times Free Press staff full-time in January 2014 after completing the paper's six-month, general assignment reporter internship. Alex grew up in Dayton, Tenn., which is also where he studied journalism at Bryan College. He graduated from Rhea County High School in 2008. During college, Alex covered the city of Graysville and the town of Spring City for The Herald-News. As editor-in-chief of Bryan College's student news group, Triangle, Alex reported on ...

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