Same-Sex Benefits Made Easy

From Associated Press

If Dr. Robert Jenkins as much as mentioned the words "gay" and "lesbian," insurance company doors slammed shut.

Few would take his pink business card. Few would return his phone calls.

As head of an agency trying to help same-sex couples obtain insurance benefits under Hawaii's new reciprocal-benefits law, he's seen discrimination firsthand.

With a colorful rainbow as its logo, Hawaii-based Pride Insurance & Financial Services Inc. opened for business this summer, just as the new law--the nation's first--came into effect, giving couples who can't legally marry a taste of the married life. Partly intended to support state efforts to head off court-ordered marriages for same-sex couples, the law includes a variety of provisions that benefit non-married couples of many kinds.

A major provision of the law grants insurance benefits to same-gender couples.

So all summer, Jenkins and his nine employees have been on the hunt for companies that will help gays and lesbians who want to sign up for joint life, health and homeowners insurance.

Thus far, they've found 16 in the entire nation. Although small, the number is a start, Jenkins said.

"A lot of insurance companies won't even touch gays and lesbians," he said. "Let's just be honest about this. It's a capitalist society. They don't have to do anything they don't want to do. But we've found some insurance agencies that are sympathetic and willing to truly not discriminate."

But that quest has been tough. The first company--in Montgomery, Ala.--that Pride Insurance asked to cover homosexual couples gave it a cold, hard slap in the face, agent Steven Tseu said.

"Their response was, 'We're Southern rednecks and we frown on that kind of behavior.' The next day they called and canceled their contract with us," Tseu said. "When they turned us down like that, it was very discouraging."

Jenkins, who is gay, was a primary care physician for AIDS patients in Los Angeles for 10 years and saw firsthand how insurance companies resist coverage.

His days were filled with finding ways to sneak AIDS patients onto some kind of health insurance plan.

"Let's not go that way. Let's just be upfront and give the business to companies that truly don't discriminate," Jenkins said.

About two clients a day come in to inquire about insurance or how to sign up as beneficiaries under the new law, he said. Overall, demand for new coverage has been minimal since the law became effective in July.

The law grants any adult couple who can't legally marry--gays and lesbians, parent and adult child, siblings and roommates--about 45 of the 400 legal benefits of marriage.

One Pride Insurance client, Daniel Peralta, a 35-year-old contractor employed part time with the state, said he couldn't wait to sign up after the law passed. He had no medical insurance and was desperate to be covered under a policy with his partner, Michael Graves.

However, he had no idea how to go about doing it.

"I tried to look into it on my own. But I thought, where do you go? Who do you call?" Peralta said. After he was referred to Pride Insurance, everything went smoothly, he said.

Pride Insurance, which is opening offices in California, also helps same-sex couples in other states and countries apply to become reciprocal beneficiaries under the Hawaii law, which has no residency requirement.

Having that document can help couples get domestic partnership benefits at work, hospital visitation rights when a partner is sick and other benefits, Jenkins said.

"It's sad to need a separate agency for gays and lesbians, but some people are uncomfortable going into an agency where someone says, 'What about your wife and kids?' and you have to say, 'Well, it's my boyfriend and my dog.' Who knows how an agent is going to respond?" said Jenkins. "Here they know they're going to be totally accepted. It feels good to come home and be out. And to make no apologies."

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