Arizona Defends Decision To Deny Health Benefits To Domestic Partners

In September 2009, in yet another effort to plug the state’s budget hole, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R) and the state legislature eliminated health benefits for domestic partners, adversely affecting same-sex couples who cannot marry in the state. Lambda Legal sued the state on behalf of 10 state employee and in July of 2010, a federal judge rejected the state’s claim that “the elimination of benefits will not harm the families of gay and lesbian employees” and temporarily prevented the benefit cuts, saying that the law “violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause by making it impossible for homosexuals to get health coverage for their partners.”

Today, the state is challenging the decision before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If the court lifts the injunction, some 480 LGBT families and children could lose their health benefits:

A three-judge panel in San Francisco hears oral arguments today. Arizona spends $625 million a year on employee benefits, of which roughly $5 million went to benefits for all domestic partners.

The state can’t require employees to be married in order to qualify for family benefits when Arizona offers no legal unions for same-sex couples, said Tara Borelli, an attorney with Lambda Legal, a New York-based advocacy group that filed the lawsuit.

“The state has set up a legal impossibility for gay couples,” said Borelli, who will argue the case today.

In addition, the state can’t discriminate against a group of people to save money, she said. But the state argues that there’s no requirement to offer benefits to domestic partners. More than half the states and the federal government do not.

The state began offering benefits to domestic partners in 2007, after then-Governor Janet Napolitano (D) implemented a rule change. “That put Arizona in line with 20 states and several Arizona cities, including Phoenix, Tempe, Tucson and Scottsdale,” according to the Arizona Republic.

What’s more, given the state’s opposition to federal health care reform, if Arizona prevails in the 9th circuit and domestic dependents lose their insurance, gay partners will have a particularly difficult time finding affordable coverage. They won’t be able to receive benefits through marriage, because Arizona does not recognize same-sex relationships and may have a hard time taking advantage of the new reforms if the state resists implementing the Affordable Care Act.