Intermountain employees say domestic partner benefits too costly
Tanya Worley was proud to learn her employer, Intermountain Healthcare, was extending health coverage and other perks to unmarried couples.
"I was impressed that a company based in a conservative area would take such a bold step," said the 38-year-old nurse.
But her admiration faded when she saw that adding her partner to her health plan would cost an extra $438 a month. That's more than five times what Intermountain charges to add a spouse and nearly triple the amount to insure an entire family.
While "progressive on paper," the pricing makes it impractical to take advantage of the benefit, Worley said. "I could easily go out and purchase insurance for that much."
Worley is quick to stress that she likes her job, calling Intermountain "a good employer." But the discriminatory pricing "felt like a slap in the face," she said.
Her partner has coverage through her own job but works in the unstable auto industry.
"I looked forward to adding her to my plan and offering her that security," Worley said.
Other workers are equally disappointed and have made their feelings known to the hospital chain's human-resources department.
"They're not truly treating us as equals," said Life Flight nurse Lori Hutchison, who wrote a letter of complaint. "That's all we can do. We have no legal standing. Any company that offers domestic-partner benefits does it because it's the right thing to do, not because they have to."
Company spokesman Daron Cowley confirmed domestic partners are being charged more, explaining that Intermountain isn't subsidizing their coverage.
"But it's guaranteed issue, so it gives access to coverage for some people who might not normally qualify," he said. "Our benefits are reflective of what other companies in our markets are doing. Feedback from employees has been very positive."
Discriminatory pricing is legal and common in the health insurance industry.
Women and seniors are often charged higher premiums. Living in the wrong geographical area can count against consumers.
Some employers impose a surcharge on employees who bring spouses onto their plan if that spouse has access to coverage at work.
It's a strategy that's spreading as companies struggle to manage rising health costs, according to a recent poll by Chicago-based human-resources consulting firm Aon Hewitt.
But in the competitive health care field, rich benefits can be used to lure top talent.
MountainStar Healthcare employees are all charged the same, whether they're adding a child, spouse or domestic partner. And they're not charged much an extra $8 to $32 per month, depending on the policy, said a spokeswoman, Audrey Glasby.
It's a similar scenario at CHG Healthcare Services, a headhunting and staffing agency for the medical field.
Carrying the costs of domestic partners means an up-front investment for the Salt Lake City company, especially because, under federal law, domestic-partner premiums don't qualify as a pretax benefit, said benefits director Nicole Thurman. But Thurman said adding those 41 lives to the company's pool of about 650 employees has helped leverage risk and keep claims in check.
"We believe this is attributable to many factors, including an environment that puts all people first, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation," she said.
Intermountain may already have a hiring advantage with its prestige and unparalleled size.
The company boasts a work force of 32,000.
But Megan Williamson McDonald, a physician recruiter at CHG, predicts domestic-partner benefits will grow more prevalent and equitable.
"These days, it's so common for people to live together before getting married," she said.
McDonald was able to add her boyfriend to her policy before they were married.
"Our finances were combined, and our relationship functioned just as a marriage would. So for him to not have benefits would have been a big expense for us," she said. "I'm not sure what we would have done without it."
The fine print
Intermountain Healthcare began extending health benefits to unmarried couples this fall.
Gender • Couples can be of the same, or opposite, sex but must have shared a residence for at least 12 months.
Live-in relatives • Don't qualify.
Finances • Couples must also be financially co-dependent.
Costs vary depending on the type of plan and whether an employee works full or part time:
Employee • $66-$256
Employee + spouse • $132-$384
Employee + children • $98-$514
Employee + domestic partner • $494-$626
Source: 2011 Intermountainbenefits premium worksheet