February 2, 2015 at 4:30 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Obama budget includes Social Security fix for gay couples
State of the Union, gay news, Washington Blade

President Barack Obama‘s budget proposal includes Social Security benefits for gay couples. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

President Obama included language in his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year that would remove a legal barrier prohibiting same-sex couples in non-marriage equality states from receiving certain Social Security spousal benefits.

The nearly $4 trillion FY-2016 budget proposal, which the White House Office of Management & Budget unveiled on Monday, is considered a populist plan because it seeks to boost the middle class while raising taxes on the wealthy and on businesses.

The plan also seeks to amend the Social Security Act, which currently looks to the state of residence, not the state of celebration, to determine whether a couple is married. That means unless same-sex couples live in one of the 36 states where gay couples can legally marry, they’re currently ineligible for certain Social Security spousal benefits, including survivor benefits and the one-time lump sum death benefit.

If Obama’s budget proposal is approved — a tall order in the Republican-controlled Congress — U.S. code would be changed so married same-sex couples would be eligible for these benefits even if they live in a state that doesn’t recognize their marriage.

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, praised Obama for including in his budget plan a provision to ensure parity of Social Security benefits for same-sex couples.

“His proposal to ensure equal Social Security benefits would fix a crucial gap in federal protections for same-sex couples,” Wolfson said. “President Obama’s leadership in helping bring the freedom to marry to all Americans will be a shining part of this president’s legacy,”

But Wolfson added the only way to ensure same-sex couples have the benefits of marriage nationwide is “for the Supreme Court to put the country on the right side of history by ending marriage discrimination throughout the United States, leaving no family and no state behind.”

The proposed fix to the Social Security code in Obama’s budget is along the lines of the Social Security & Marriage Equality Act, which was introduced last year by Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) in the U.S. House and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in the U.S. Senate.

In a statement to the Washington Blade, Murray commended Obama for including the language in his budget plan on the basis that same-sex couples “deserve equal treatment under the law, regardless of their zip code.”

“I introduced the Social Security & Marriage Equality Act to ensure all couples have access to Social Security survivor benefits they’ve earned, and I’m pleased the president reflected this priority in his budget proposal,” Murray said. “There is still work to be done to ensure that equality does not end at state lines, so I look forward to reintroducing the SAME Act in the 114th Congress.”

Social Security benefits are but one issue facing same-sex couples who live in non-marriage equality states. Title 38 of the U.S. code, which governs veterans benefits, also looks to the state of residence, not the state of celebration, to determine whether a couple is married.

Same-sex couples in non-marriage equality states are currently ineligible for veterans benefits like ChampVA (health care for spouses of disabled veterans), higher disability compensation for disabled veterans with dependents, full access to VA home loans and many survivor benefits for widows.

Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the LGBT military group known as the American Military Partner Association, said she’s disappointed the budget ignores the issue of veterans benefits for same-sex couples.

“While we are pleased to see many opportunities proposed that will positively impact our military families in other areas, we are disappointed the budget does not propose a fix to the continued denial of equal veterans benefits to all legally married couples – a fix like it proposes for Social Security benefits,” Broadway-Mack said. “AMPA is unquestionably committed to ending this injustice, and we are confident that President Obama stands with us. Whether through Congress or through the courts, justice will ultimately prevail for our LGBT service members, veterans and families.”

In addition to backing a legislative fix, LGBT advocates have said Obama has the responsibility to afford Social Security and veterans benefits to married same-sex couples regardless of state of residence in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision against DOMA. Last year, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote to Obama calling on him to extend these benefits to same-sex couples because the spirit of the DOMA decision means the federal government shouldn’t withhold them.

Additionally, Obama’s budget proposal continues the funding seen for HIV/AIDS programs at fiscal year 2015 levels and in some cases provides for a modest boost in allocations.

Touting Obama’s vision of achieving an “AIDS-free generation,” the budget highlights the importance of programs targeting high-risk groups for HIV/AIDS, such as gay and bisexual men, as outlined in the National AIDS Strategy.

Here are the numbers for the budget proposals on HIV/AIDS as outlined by the White House fact sheet on the budget.

• Compared to 2015, the budget increases domestic discretionary Health & Human Services HIV/AIDS by $118 million, including a doubling of funds for the Office of Women’s Health. Overall, total U.S. government-wide spending on HIV/AIDS increases by nearly $1 billion from $30.7 billion in FY-15 to $31.6 billion in FY-16.

• The budget invests $2.3 billion in the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program to provide treatment and care completion services for people living with HIV, and includes $900 million for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program to ensure that people living with HIV have access to life-saving antiretroviral treatments.

• The budget invests $799 million, an increase of $12.6 million, for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention to continue implementing the goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy by preventing HIV/AIDS among high-risk communities using evidence-based interventions.

• The budget provides $332 million for Department of Housing & Urban Development’s Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA) program to address housing needs among people living with HIV/AIDS and their families.

• To address the critical AIDS research priorities, the budget requests $3.1 billion for trans-National Institutes of Health AIDS research, an increase of $100 million above the FY-15 level.

• The budget includes $1.15 billion within the Department of Veterans Affairs, including a $62 million increase for medical care, to ensure that veterans living with HIV/AIDS receive high quality, comprehensive clinical care, including diagnosis of their infection and timely linkage to medical care.

Carl Schmid, deputy executive director of the AIDS Institute, said his organization is happy with the level of HIV/AIDS funding in Obama’s budget proposal.

“The budget President Obama released today demonstrates his strong commitment to ending infectious diseases by increasing funding for HIV and hepatitis prevention at the CDC and maintaining funding for lifesaving HIV health care and medications for those who cannot afford them in the United States,” Schmid said.

Kali Lindsey, deputy director of public policy for amfAR, said his organization welcomes the budget proposal because it’s a “clear demonstration of sustained support for domestic and global efforts to combat HIV.”

“With the advent of the Affordable Care Act and treatment-based prevention opportunities for HIV-negative and HIV-positive individuals alike, the integration of HIV prevention, care and treatment activities have never held more potential to have impact on the epidemic,” Lindsey said.

But not all HIV/AIDS groups are satisfied. According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s Center for Global Health Policy, the budget flat-funds the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, cuts global tuberculosis funding by $41 million, or 17 percent, and neglects to increase global health dollars.

“As clinicians and researchers involved in global HIV, TB and Ebola responses, we are deeply disappointed in the White House Fiscal Year 2016 budget proposal that once again overlooks the demonstrated challenges and opportunities this moment in global health presents,” said Kenneth Mayer, co-chair of IDSA Center for Global Health Policy. “At a time when accelerated access to antiretroviral treatment for HIV, medical circumcision to prevent acquisition of the virus and greater access to diagnostics and treatment for tuberculosis could accomplish more than ever before, the president’s proposed budget allows no additional resources for critical responses.

The Human Rights Campaign didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on the LGBT or HIV/AIDS components of Obama’s budget proposal.

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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