- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2002

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission approved extending health benefits to domestic partners of employees yesterday, making the agency the first public employer in Prince George's County to do so.

Emerging after a closed session and after no public discussion, eight members of the commission in attendance unanimously approved the extension; one member abstained.

"It was the natural extension of fairness," said Elizabeth Hewlett, chairman of the Prince George's Planning Board, which along with the Montgomery County Planning Board makes up the bi-county commission. "It is one thing to espouse a politically correct concept of nondiscrimination, another to walk the walk."

The matter arose last week at a Prince George's planning meeting closed to the public, where a debate raged over offering the benefits to both heterosexual and homosexual couples or only to same-sex couples.

Some members from Montgomery County argued last week in favor of a same-sex-only extension on the grounds that heterosexual couples can marry, sources close to the commission said. Opponents of this stance said that excluding heterosexual partners would be discriminatory.

Montgomery County already offers same-sex couples benefits.

Commissioners say the new policy would help in hiring and retention.

"It is also a way to extend health benefits to those without," said Wendy Perdue, vice chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board. "That is a major social issue. This is an important small step."

Eligible employees must meet specific criteria to prove the relationship exists, such as providing documents detailing a shared mortgage or a joint bank account.

The initiative will be funded by an increase in medical insurance co-payments from $5 to $10. Only a small number of the agency's almost 2,200 current and retired employees are expected to use the benefit.

The extension of benefits to domestic partnerships is part of a growing trend.

Nationally, about 4,500 employers offer the benefits, about two-thirds of those to all domestic partnerships. The vast majority of those employers are private companies, nonprofits or unions only nine are states and 134 are municipalities.

Locally, Montgomery County, the District and the cities of Baltimore and Takoma Park offer domestic-partner benefits. More recently, Montgomery County's police department extended these benefits last year to both heterosexual and homosexual couples.

Prince George's County Council Chairman Peter Shapiro, who said he followed Montgomery's extension of benefits with interest, said he would consider proposing such a change for county employees if the "time were right."

"We also have a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation," he said. "This would be putting your money where your mouth is."

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