Joining other major Hollywood studios, Walt Disney Co. will extend health coverage to the partners of gay and lesbian employees beginning Jan. 1.
"We made this decision because it brings our health benefit in line with our corporate non-discrimination policy," Disney spokesman John Dreyer said Friday. "We constantly review our benefits."
While Disney called the change routine, observers said Disney had considered the issue for three years, studying the costs as well as the potential impact on its "family-oriented" image.
The issue had been the subject of intense lobbying efforts within the company that had once been viewed as so anti-gay that it prevented two men from dancing together at Disneyland.
Among Hollywood studios, Disney was one of the last holdouts to offer so-called "domestic partner benefits." Analysts said Disney joined the bandwagon because it did not want to risk losing talented workers in a highly competitive industry. As with the high-tech and medical industries, the entertainment field is believed to have a larger proportion of gay workers.
Under Disney's new policy, to claim the benefit an employee must sign an affidavit affirming that he or she is living with the person who will receive the benefits. Domestic partners also must be financially dependent on each other, and their children will also be eligible for coverage.
Disney's decision, revealed in an employee newsletter this week, was hailed by gay activists, but drew fire from anti-gay groups.
Nonetheless, health insurance executives said Disney's move would likely spur corporate America--which has been reluctant to embrace the policy--to consider health benefits for gay partners.
"I think other people will say, 'If it's good enough for Disney, maybe it's something we should consider,' " said Gary Schmidt, marketing director of PacifiCare Health Systems, a large health maintenance organization in Cypress.
Despite concerns over rising costs, scores of public and private employers have adopted domestic benefits policies in recent years, including Microsoft Inc., Levi Strauss and Apple Computer. Most of these employers extend coverage to same-sex couples as well as unmarried heterosexual partners of employees.
But Disney's policy, like those at other major Hollywood studios, limits coverage to gay employees. Disney officials declined to comment on why heterosexual partners are excluded.
Richard Jennings, executive director of Hollywood Supports, a nonprofit group promoting awareness of AIDS and gay issues, said Disney Chairman Michael Eisner had made a commitment to his group late last year that the company would adopt the policy.
"It's been a long effort," Jennings said of his group's attempts to turn Disney around. Initially, Jennings said, Disney expressed concerns related to taxes. But "their greatest concern," Jennings said, "is their reputation as a maker of family entertainment."
"It's the fairest thing to do," said Tamra King, entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "Disney promotes itself as a family company. This is a family benefit for people who don't have a legal right to get married."
But conservative groups blasted the new policy.
"With the understanding that the homosexual agenda has penetrated Hollywood, it should come as no surprise that Disney now supports anti-family values," said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, leader of the Traditional Values Coalition in Anaheim, a conservative group that opposes gay rights.
Disney officials declined to say how many employees were expected to sign up for the new benefits. However, analysts said that at many other companies only 1% to 2% of the employees have filed for the benefits and that it has not significantly added to employer costs.
In the last three years, media giants such as MCA/Universal, Paramount Pictures, Sony and Warner Brothers have extended health benefits to their gay or lesbian workers. Until now, Disney was on a short list with Fox and MGM of not offering same-sex policies.
Fox officials were unavailable for comment Friday. MGM spokeswoman Anne Corley said the studio hasn't ruled out such benefits.