By Kelly Pickerel
Fusion staff writer
Since his arrival at Kent State Stark Campus in 2000, Jay Sloan was waiting patiently for this past New Year’s Day.
That’s when a domestic partner benefit plan went into effect at Kent State, the ninth Ohio college to finally offer the option to faculty, staff and their partners.
“This was the huge milestone,” Sloan says now, as one of the 27 individuals across Kent State’s eight campuses to enroll in the benefit plan. “There’s a huge sense of relief. One of our big concerns was some sort of catastrophic health issue that would make it very difficult for us. Those kinds of barriers aren’t there now.”
Sloan and his partner, Herman Guy, now have the chance to not only live without the worry of untreatable health issues, but also Guy can receive dependent life insurance, voluntary accidental death and dismemberment insurance and a tuition fee waiver, along with medical, prescription, vision and dental insurance.
Although the benefit of insurance is a plus, some have found problems with the university’s plan. Nancy Green, a faculty member who wished to remain anonymous, noticed her insurance was suspended temporarily in preparation for the Jan. 1 start date when she signed up during the fall. “I got concerned over Christmas break. I looked at my HR tab on FlashLine, and it said (my insurance) was terminated. So I called, and they said it was just a computer glitch,” Green says.
Green’s partner needed medication soon after Jan. 1, and the glitches in the computer system had to be handled quickly. “At CVS, they said there was no coverage,” she says. “I called the benefits office right away, and they said (they) were taking care of it.” The problem was fixed within hours.
Sloan says most of the original problems at the beginning of the year were because of the newness of the plan to all parties involved. “There was a scramble to get this stuff together,” he says. “It definitely felt like the university was also scrambling, figuring out how to do this.”
The delay was to understand government requirements for the plan. University benefits manager Loretta Shields says the standard guidelines were adopted from other university plans, but the Internal Revenue Service requirements were a big adjustment.
The U.S. government does not recognize a domestic partner as a spouse in that while spouses and children are considered dependents of the employee, domestic partners are not. Therefore, benefits for a domestic partner are taxed. According to the university’s plan details, these taxes can be avoided “only if the employee is eligible to claim the domestic partner as a tax dependent.” The Internal Revenue Service defines a tax dependent as one who depends on the employee making more than half of the couple’s income and has lived in the taxpayer’s household for the entire tax year. If this dependency is acknowledged, then extra taxes aren’t withdrawn. This is all because of IRS and not university guidelines, Shields says.
According to policy, eligible partners must be at least 18 years old, share a permanent residence, have been in the relationship for at least six months, are not currently married to anyone else, are not related by blood and are financially interdependent on each other. And they must prove this when signing up during three eligible times: as a newly hired or eligible employee within 31 days, within 31 days of experiencing a family status change (such as marriage, divorce, birth or death) or during the annual Open Enrollment period.
The couple must present three separate documents, such as a joint bank account or deed, a dual mortgage, a will designating the partner as the primary beneficiary or a durable power of attorney saying powers are granted to one another.
Sloan says proving his relationship with documentation was the biggest headache. “It’s not even contemplated for a married couple,” he says. “It’s only those of us who have domestic partners that have to supply extra information. When I talked to my married colleagues, they don’t have to prove anything. There’s no documentation whatsoever.”
Shields says this process is out of the university’s hands. “They are just standard guidelines,” she says. “We adopted our process by looking at several other universities.”
Denise Shordt, manager of benefits at the University of Toledo, says when her university’s plan went into effect in April 2006, the benefits office ran into some of the same problems Kent State is facing, especially the headache of documentation and requirements. But the two universities’ plans are basically carbon copies of one another.
“There are some people who don’t want to commit to having (their partner) on the mortgage. But that’s one of the qualifications,” to have a shared residence, Shordt says. “When you’re committed, you’re committed.”
Now three years later, Shordt says there aren’t too many unanswered questions. “The group of domestic partners was steady. We have added a few every year, but we don’t have a lot of problems.”
Bill Rickert, associate provost at Wright State University, says when the plan was implemented in January 2007 at WSU, the university knew there would be problems.
“There was confusion that led to some incorrect deductions and inconvenience, if not hardship, on the part of some employees,” Rickert says in an e-mail. “While there was consternation about the tax issues, all else has gone quite smoothly. Conversations I have had with individual employees and interested groups during the last couple of years suggest that most people are pleased about the benefits, and I have not received anything negative.”
Daniel Nadon, associate professor of theater at the Kent State Trumbull Campus, missed the deadline this year at Kent State and says he was asked to apply again in the fall. Overall, he’s very supportive of the plan.
“It was what I expected,” he says. “Nothing the university can offer will match the benefit package for spouses of legally married persons. But, (the university) did their best.”
It may not be the best, but it’s good enough for Sloan, Nadon and other Kent State faculty and staff who can finally act after years of waiting.
“I realize what the university is up against. They can’t change federal law,” Sloan says. “(Administrators have) done what they could, and they’ve done a decent job with it. I think that we’ve just been beaten up enough that we were cynical from the beginning.
“The next things are beyond the university, more at the state level. Maybe further down the line, we can embrace the ‘m’ word.”