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Tennessee now offering benefits to same-sex spouses of state employees

NASHVILLE — Tennessee government is now offering health insurance and other benefits to same-sex spouses of state workers as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's June 26 ruling legalizing the unions.

While the University of Tennessee made a public splash earlier this week by announcing it was offering the benefits, the move actually stemmed from a Gov. Bill Haslam administration directive issued July 2 in response to the high court's decision.

The office of Benefits Administration in the state's Department of Finance and Administration manages insurance benefits for all state employees, higher education employees, including UT, and many local education and local government agencies, spokeswoman Joan Williams told the Times Free Press via email.

Benefits Administration officials have been "accepting and processing insurance applications from same-sex legally married couples" since July 2, she said.

Williams said she didn't know exactly how many people have applied.

According to the state, applicants have 60 days to apply from the later of two dates: their marriage date or the June 26 date of the Supreme Court ruling. For employees and spouses who married in other states before the Supreme Court ruling, the deadline to apply is Aug. 25.

The Tennessee Constitution previously banned same-sex marriages and refused to recognize lawful marriages of same-sex couples in other states. That constitutional provision was voided by the Supreme Court ruling.

Williams said applications are now being processed according to the "same standards used for all married couples, which includes documentation requirements, notifications, etc."

If the application falls outside the initial eligibility period, or if the employee wants to add other eligible dependents along with the spouse, the usual rules regarding enrollment by special qualifying event or the annual fall open enrollment will apply, she said.

Haslam and state Attorney General Herbert Slatery III had asked for public patience on issues related to the high court ruling, saying it would take time to implement changes not just for state employees but in other areas such as adoptions.

The Tennessee State Employees Association had provided some guidance to members on its website before the state acted.

"I believe it's the full gamut" of benefits, said Chris Dauphin, TSEA communications director.

According to the Finance and Administration website, the state offers a number of other insurance-related benefits including pharmacy, dental, vision, life insurance and long-term care insurance.

Depending on the situation, same-sex spouses of state employees would be eligible for pension survivor benefits as well, according to advocates in the gay, lesbian and transgender community.

State Treasurer David Lillard's office oversees the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement Plan. A spokeswoman for his office, Shelli King, said the policy has changed very little.

"Members of TCRS have always been able to select their beneficiaries," she said. The exception, she said, is that in the past only a lawfully married spouse could benefit from policies of state workers killed in the line of duty. That would now change.

Chuck Cantrell, associate vice chancellor for marketing and communication at UTC, said health, dental and vision insurance "is available for application now."

"Information about other available benefits will be communicated as soon as possible," Cantrell said. "Enrollment and beneficiary designations in some of these other programs are handled by third-party companies, and we have not received instructions yet."

He said the university has "had a few inquiries into the insurance benefits with the process at various stages of progress."

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, said the state seems to be addressing changes.

"State government employees got information early and the universities followed suit," Sanders said. "I'm assuming that people are moving forward in figuring out how to do that. I have not heard of any public entity refusing."

Noting that Tennessee county clerks are in compliance in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Sanders said, "Tennessee is doing extremely well."

In West Tennessee's Decatur County, Sanders noted, the clerk and two employees resigned rather than issue same-sex marriage certificates. But the county mayor named an interim clerk who serves until Monday, when the county commission is expected to appoint a replacement.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

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