University of Pittsburgh
July 21, 1999

WHY THE UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH MUST DEFEND THE LAWSUIT REGARDING HEALTH CARE BENEFITS FOR "SAME-SEX DOMESTIC PARTNERS"

Contact:  412-624-4147

April 28, 1999

Every day, leaders of organizations and businesses, large and small, are forced to balance the needs of individuals against the greater good of all employees.

As one of the largest employers in Western Pennsylvania, leaders of the University of Pittsburgh are constantly trying to make decisions that are in the best interest of the institution and all of its employees -- while also weighing the political, economic and legal demands of all the various constituent groups on campus.

Sometimes you just can't win, no matter what you decide. And occasionally, you find yourself taken hostage -- not necessarily because of some insensitive or illegal act that you have committed, but simply because your good name and high visibility are guaranteed to generate maximum publicity.

Sadly, this is the situation in which the University finds itself today. A lawsuit filed by a former employee seeks to overturn the university's decision not to provide health-insurance benefits to partners of homosexual employees.

The goal of this lawsuit is not to correct an illegal policy, because the University of Pittsburgh's position is perfectly legal. No, the goal of the lawsuit is to make an end-run around the law and accomplish in the court of public opinion what has not been accomplished legislatively in this Commonwealth -- to change the legal definition of "marriage" and "spouse" to include same-sex couples.

The University of Pittsburgh, then, is being used as a political pawn in a game that should be settled elsewhere -- in the State Legislature in Harrisburg.

It's obvious why the University has been dragged into this battle against its will. It is because of our highly visible position in the community and because of our historic reputation for progressive policies. If Pitt relents and provides health-insurance benefits to same-sex domestic partners, it will increase pressure on other employers to do so, our adversaries conclude. However, it is not our function to serve as their political tool.

The University of Pittsburgh has long been committed to fairness, equity and free speech, and our programs and policies demonstrate this commitment. Our greatest strength is our faculty and staff, and some measure of the value we place on them is shown through a generous benefits package that is fair to all. It includes health-insurance benefits to all employees, regardless of their sexual orientation.

We provide tuition remission and bereavement leave benefits to all employees, including those with same-sex partners. We do not, however, provide health insurance coverage to unmarried partners, either same sex or opposite sex.

Like all employers, we must weigh many factors in determining what benefits we can and cannot provide. As a state-related institution, we take state law seriously and must consider the actions and views of the Pennsylvania Legislature in setting policies. The legislature, as recently as three years ago, has indicated an unwillingness to expand the legal definition of "marriage" to include same-sex relationships.

In fact, earlier this year a spokesperson for the state House Appropriations Committee publicly suggested that appropriations might be withheld from state-related institutions that extended health-insurance benefits to same-sex couples. The state appropriation to Pitt is almost 20% of our overall budget, and we take such risks seriously, as apparently do the other state-related universities and the State System of Higher Education who also do not provide same-sex health care benefits.

We respect the Human Relations Commission and the city ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual preference. We applaud the protections they currently provide and do not want to see any of the current laws or protections invalidated. However, the ordinance is being used in this lawsuit for purposes which even members of City Council agree were not intended.

The Post Gazette, which does not itself provide health insurance coverage to same sex domestic partners, has referred to a risk to the HRC should the courts decide this lawsuit in favor of the University on the basis of the ordinance being inconsistent with state law.

However, the commission is perfectly free to dismiss the complaint on any one of a number of legal reasons. They can dismiss it without basing it on a particular defense that we've offered. It does no harm to the protections relating to employment and housing that are currently in the ordinance, because they are consistent with the state's position.

But refusing to permit state law to be "trumped" by a contrary city ordinance is to advance a principle to all who need some measure of legal certainty in structuring their business arrangements. A ruling against the University in this lawsuit could establish dangerous legal precedent if future city ordinances are inconsistent with what we know to be state law. This is an important principle for the University and other institutions in the city.

And, since we strongly believe that the real issue in this lawsuit is not health benefits but whether the state definition of "marriage" and "spouse," are to be viewed as controlling, we expect that it will ultimately have to be decided in State courts.

The off-hand estimates of the ultimate costs of providing health care benefits for same-sex partners have been unrealistic. We have not provided estimates because we cannot predict how many people would apply for these benefits. But consider the following.

The State Insurance Department has indicated that if we gave health benefits to same sex partners, we would also have to provide them to opposite sex partners. Demographic experts estimate, that over 50% of couples who ultimately marry live together, and who can predict who else might qualify as a "live-in partner?"

We now have 3,292 employees receiving "individual" benefits at the University. So if only 10% of those who now have single coverage said, "I want benefits for either my same sex or my opposite sex partner," we estimate the cost to the University of over 3/4 of a million dollars. If it was 25%, $2 million. At 50%, $4 million, and if it was all 3,292, over $7 million. How can anyone reasonably estimate an insurance cost that is somewhere between $26,000 and $7 million? And where does this money come from?

We only ask that those who wish to redefine marriage take their grievance to Harrisburg, the only place where it can be decided legally and unambiguously.

Jerry Cochran

Executive Vice Chancellor

University of Pittsburgh