June 28, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
OPM lays out post-DOMA plan for fed’l employee benefits
U.S. Office of Personnel Management has instituted new guidance for married gay federal employees in the wake of DOMA (photo public domain)

U.S. Office of Personnel Management has instituted new guidance for married gay federal employees in the wake of the DOMA court ruling. (photo public domain)

Gay federal employees in legal same-sex marriages will be eligible immediately for health and pension benefits in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling against Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, according to a new memo from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

The memorandum, dated June 28 and signed by OPM acting director Elaine Kaplan, identifies five new areas of benefits that will be available after the court decision for the legal spouses as well as newly qualified children and stepchildren of gay federal employees.

“There are numerous benefits that are affected by the Supreme Court’s decision, and it is impossible to answer every question that you might have,” Kaplan, a lesbian, writes. “Nevertheless, I want to assure you that the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is committed to working with the Department of Justice to ensure swift and seamless implementation of the court’s ruling.”

The five new benefits identified in the memo are:

• health insurance through the Federal Health Employees Benefits (FEHB) plan;

• life insurance through the Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance (FEGLI) program;

• dental and vision insurance through the Federal Employee Dental and Vision Insurance Program (FEDVIP);

• long-term care insurance under the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program (FLTCIP);

• retirement benefits;

• and the ability to submit claims for medical expenses through flexible spending accounts.

For each of the four insurance benefits in the memo, gay federal employees must elect to make a change within the window of 60 days between June 26, 2013 and August 26, 2013 to enroll. With respect to health, dental and vision insurance, the next opportunity would be at the start of open season later this year.

For employees who already have health coverage under a FEHB plan, coverage will begin immediately. For those who don’t, benefits will be effective on the first day of the first pay period after the enrollment request is received.

To be eligible for retirement benefits for their same-sex spouses, gay federal employees have two years until after the Supreme Court decision, or June 26, 2015, to inform OPM they have a legal marriage that qualifies for recognition and elect and changes to benefits.

The OPM memo is the first of many pieces of guidance expected from federal agencies in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. After the court ruling, President Obama said he instructed U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to work with other Cabinet members to implement the end to the Defense of Marriage Act.

In a statement, Obama called the OPM guidance “a critical first step” toward implementing the Supreme Court ruling that determined “all married couples should be treated equally under federal law.”

“Thousands of gays and lesbians serve our country every day in the federal government,” Obama said. “They, and their spouses and children, deserve the same respect and protection as every other family.”

In another statement, Holder said the Obama administration by offering these benefits “is making real the promise of this important decision” against DOMA, but there’s more to come.

“As the President directed, the Department of Justice will continue to coordinate with other federal agencies to implement this ruling as swiftly and smoothly as possible,” Holder said. “I look forward to sharing additional information as it becomes available. We will never stop fighting to ensure equality, opportunity, and – above all – justice for everyone in this country.”

Leonard Hirsch, a board member for the LGBT federal employee affinity group known as Federal GLOBE, called the guidance “an extraordinary result” for everyone’s who been working on the issue for decades.

“It opens up the key benefits that key benefits for federal employees that have been closed — health insurance, life insurance — to the same-sex spouses of federal employees and retirees,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch also emphasized the word must to get out to federal retirees that their same-sex spouses are eligible for federal benefits in the wake of the ruling against DOMA.

“This was included, so this is a wonderful, inclusive set of changes that OPM has been preparing for and announced today,” Hirsch said.

Thomas Richards, an OPM spokesperson, confirmed that the guidance applies to all employees in legal same-sex marriages — even those that live in states that don’t recognize marriage equality.

“These benefits will be available to any federal employee or annuitant who has a valid marriage license, regardless of their state of residency,” Richards said.

But the guidance doesn’t cover federal employees in same-sex relationships who aren’t married, such as those in domestic partnerships or civil unions. In July, gay Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) is expected to introduce the legislation known as the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act to address this issue.

Richards noted the limitations of the new guidance is restricted to legally married federal employees, but recalled a 2009 memorandum from President Obama that offered limited benefits to employees in civil unions or domestic partnerships

“Acting Director Kaplan’s memo identifies certain benefits previously available only to opposite-sex spouses that are now available to all legally married spouses, including same-sex spouses,” Richards said. “OPM has already extended benefits to same-sex domestic partners to the extent permissible under the law.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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