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Blue Cross resolves glitch in enrolling gay spouses

Md. activist’s wife listed as ‘male’ on insurance plan

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Lisa Polyak, gay news, Washington Blade
Lisa Polyak, gay news, Washington Blade

Maryland activist Lisa Polyak encountered problems adding her wife, Gita Deane, to a Blue Cross insurance policy. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

It’s all been resolved. As of Saturday, July 19, federal employee Lisa Polyak, one of the leading activists pushing for Maryland’s marriage equality law, succeeded in adding her legally married spouse and partner of more than 30 years, Gita Deane, to her employee health insurance policy.

The approval came more than two weeks after Polyak’s request to add Deane to her health plan was denied, with a Blue Cross Blue Shield customer service representative informing her that a computer program used to process such requests would not accept same-sex spouses.

On July 20, Polyak, a civilian staff member with the Department of the Army in Aberdeen, Md., discovered to her delight that the quirky computer glitch that initially required Deane’s gender to be listed as “male” in order for her to be approved for Polyak’s health plan was changed to female.

“We have been overpaying for health insurance for so long – 30 years – that we would not have cared if they listed her as a kangaroo, as long as she was covered,” Polyak quipped to the Blade.

Polyak was referring to the fact that the couple had to pay for duplicate health insurance policies for years before states began legalizing marriage between same-sex couples. Once that happened in Maryland earlier this year she still couldn’t add Deane to her health plan because the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

That remaining impediment ended on June 26 when the U.S. Supreme Court declared DOMA unconstitutional.

Jena L. Estes, vice president of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association’s Federal Employee program, said the snafu Polyak encountered represented the rare exception in the health insurance giant’s task of changing its internal procedures to enroll same-sex spouses of federal workers just days after the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision.

“As of today, we process probably about 40 requests a day and those are all being handled very successfully,” Estes said in describing how Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliate companies throughout the country are enrolling same-sex spouses into federal employees’ health insurance plans.

According to Estes, CareFirst, the Blue Cross Blue Shield company providing health insurance in the D.C. metropolitan area, has successfully processed about 100 requests by federal employees like Polyak to add their same-sex spouse to their health plan since July 3.

That’s when the U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued a special guidance directing health insurance companies that provide policies to federal employees to begin enrolling same-sex spouses under the federal health benefits program. The OPM guidance and directive allows federal employees to enroll their same-sex spouses for a 60-day period that ends on Aug. 26.

If they don’t arrange for a same-sex spouse to be enrolled by that date they must wait until Nov. 11, when the annual open enrollment period begins for the federal employee health insurance program. The open enrollment period lasts until Dec. 9.

Estes attributes the problem Polyak experienced to a short period in which some of the Blue Cross Blue Shield companies had yet to fully change their internal systems to adapt to the Supreme Court ruling. She noted that the OPM guidance called for the insurance companies to begin processing same-sex spouse enrollments in the federal employee system beginning July 3, just five business days after the Supreme Court decision.

“So once it came out we put protocols in place immediately and began working diligently to make sure that we could accommodate the requests,” Estes told the Blade in a telephone interview on Monday. “And I believe we’ve done that.”

But in Polyak’s case, those system changes apparently weren’t put in place by the CareFirst operation overseeing federal employee health plans where Polyak worked in Maryland.

“I spoke to Blue Cross Blue Shield reps on July 1, July 8, and July 15 and they told me that they had tried and failed to add Gita as my spouse on my insurance plan,” she told the Blade. “I also tried to add Gita as my spouse on the website. But when I identified Gita as a female…the website rejected my change and would not add her to the list of covered family members.”

Polyak said the Blue Cross Blue Shield customer service representatives were cordial and expressed frustration that they couldn’t immediately override the computer program. She said they couldn’t give her a date when the problem would be resolved.

On July 19, several days after the Blade began making inquiries about Polyak’s case with OPM and Blue Cross Blue Shield, she said a CareFirst official informed her that the computer program had been manually overridden and her request to include Deane on her policy was approved retroactively as of June 26. However, for the time being, Polyak said, the official told her Deane would have to be listed as a male.

That troubled Polyak because another company representative had told her that a medical claim filed by Deane’s doctor would be rejected if the claim identified her as female while the insurance policy listed her as male.

However, that problem was somehow resolved overnight, Polyak said. When she checked her insurance policy online on Saturday, July 20, Deane’s gender had been changed to female.

“That shows how quickly we respond,” Estes told the Blade. “But you know, we really have had maybe 15 days since OPM issued its guidance and a couple of those days were federal holidays. So we’ve been working really diligently and I’m really happy it happened in less than 24 hours,” she said in referring to Polyak’s case.

John O’Brien, Director of Healthcare and Insurance for OPM, said OPM has been working with health insurance companies to make sure same-sex couples obtain the benefits to which they are now entitled.

“If a carrier is having problems — computer or otherwise — with updating a federal employee’s enrollment status, the carrier has the responsibility to correct the issues immediately,” O’Brien told the Blade in an email. “In addition, both the carriers and enrollees should contact OPM if problems persist.”

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District of Columbia

Cherry Fund files lawsuit  against Republiq Hall

LGBTQ nonprofit says breach of contract led to $137,000 in lost revenue

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Cherry Fund claims Republiq Hall canceled a contract for one of its popular events. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Cherry Fund, the D.C.-based nonprofit organization that has raised money for HIV/AIDS, mental health, and LGBTQ organizations for the past 27 years, filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court on May 31 charging Republiq Hall, a large entertainment venue in Northeast D.C, with abruptly and improperly cancelling Cherry Fund’s reservation to rent the hall for an April 6 event expected to draw 2,000 paid guests.

The event was to be one of several circuit dance parties that Cherry Fund produces as part of its annual Cherry weekend in April, which has raised several million dollars for LGBTQ related organizations since the Cherry weekend  events began in 1996.  

The lawsuit, which charges Republiq Hall with breach of contract, says the contract signed by the two parties in January called for Cherry Fund to pay Republiq Hall an initial deposit of $3,500 on Jan. 10, 2024, to be applied to a nonrefundable rental fee totaling $7,000 for the one-time use of the space on April 6.

Republiq Hall is located in a large former warehouse building at 2122 24th Place, N.E., near the intersection of Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue. 

According to the lawsuit, under the contract, Cherry Fund “was responsible for promoting the event, booking talent, and managing ticket sales,” with Cherry Fund to “retain all door fee revenues and a percentage of the net bar sales.”

The lawsuit states, “On February 28, after Plaintiff had already begun promoting the event and booking talent, the Defendant unilaterally and without just cause demanded an additional $9,000 from the Plaintiff. When the Plaintiff refused to pay the additional amount, the Defendant cancelled the reservation.”

 As a result of Republiq Hall’s action, the lawsuit states, Cherry Fund was “forced to book an alternative venue with significantly less capacity, resulting in substantial financial losses.” 

It says as a direct result of the alleged breach of contract, Cherry Fund “suffered financial damages in the amount of $130,000 in lost door fees and $7,000 in a lost percentage of the net bar sales that were estimated to be collected on the date of the event.”

A spokesperson for Republiq Hall did not respond to a phone message from the Washington Blade requesting a comment and a response to the lawsuit’s allegations.

Court records show that Superior Court Judge Juliet J. McKenna, who is presiding over the case, scheduled an initial hearing for the case on Sept. 6. McKenna issued an order providing guidance for how a civil litigation case should proceed that includes a requirement that Republiq Hall must file a response to the lawsuit within 21 days of being officially served a copy of the lawsuit complaint.

Sean Morris, the Cherry Fund president, issued a statement expressing disappointment over the developments leading to the lawsuit.

“Our organization, powered by volunteer efforts, relies on our annual event to fundraise for local non-profits,” he said. “This abrupt and unforeseen demand, and subsequent cancellation, has severely affected our ability to support vital community programs focused on HIV/AIDS, mental health, and LGBTQ+ advocacy,” Morris says in his statement.

The lawsuit concludes by stating, “The Plaintiff, the Cherry Fund, respectfully requests the following relief: Direct compensatory damages for the lost benefits it was entitled to under the terms of the contract; Restitution for the benefits retained by the Defendant in unjust enrichment; Reasonable attorney fees and costs of this action; and Any other relief this court deems just and proper.”

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Maryland

Silver Spring Pride sign rebuilt in memory of beloved neighbor

GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $4,000

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Tony Brown's neighbors help repaint the Pride sign his late partner created in their Silver Spring, Md., neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of Molly Chehak)

Residents of Silver Spring’s Rosemary Hills neighborhood have come together to rebuild a Pride sign. 

The sign was constructed in June 2020, and was meant to stay in place throughout Pride Month. Neighborhood residents, however, requested it stay up past its intended month-long display, and has remained in place for more than four years. 

The sign spelling LOVE is at the neighborhood’s entrance between Sundale and Richmond Streets. It was made from plywood and the O was painted in the colors of the Pride flag.

“We wanted to take it down, but we just felt it was not ours anymore and belonged to the neighborhood.” Tony Brown told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview. “It was a positive thing for the neighborhood and began to take on a life of its own.” 

Brown and his partner, Mike Heffner, designed the sign and said the Black Lives Matter movement inspired them to create it as a strong symbol of an accepting community.

The sign was vandalized numerous times last fall, resulting in neighborhood residents taking turns repairing it. Brown and his partner could not do the repairs themselves because Heffner was fighting Stage 4 lung cancer.

Heffner passed away on Oct. 6, 2023.

A GoFundMe page was set up to help raise funds for the replacement Pride sign, and it has raised more than $4,000. The replacement sign is more permanent and made of metal.

“I can’t speak for the neighborhood overall, but people who knew Mike I think are happy that we were able to honor his memory with this sign because this sign is so him,” Molly Chebak, a friend who lives next door to Brown, told the Blade. “He (Heffner) was an outgoing super social (person) who just made you feel good the way this sign does. It’s a perfect tribute to him.” 

Chebak and other neighbors created the GoFundMe account.

Heffner’s family and his neighbors are still working to rebuild the Pride sign. It has become a memorial to Heffner.

“We wanted to do one that was clearly a Pride reference,” said Brown, noting the L is a fully painted Pride flag that spirals across the entire letter. 

“For the O we wanted to do something reminiscent of times in the past, a throwback to the 60’s and 70’s so it’s a hippie montage of flowers and butterflies,” he said. 

Brown described the V as being colorful, nonbinary people hugging each other with the idea that love is more than what one may see. 

“During COVID, he had started painting rocks and putting kind and fun messages on them leaving them around places as sort of a pay it forward Karma and so the E is basically that stylized writing and to embrace a bunch of ways we embrace love,” he said. 

The final letter had the phrase “love is love” written repeatedly in various handwritings to pay homage to Heffner and what he did for his neighborhood during the pandemic.  Brown’s four daughters — one of whom is a professional artist — and their friends designed it.

The landscape around the sign has also been transformed with rocks that honors Heffner’s love for Rosemary Hills and his passion for rocks.

Chebak also said Heffner always wanted a bench, and neighbors are looking to install one soon next to the Pride sign.

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District of Columbia

D.C.’s beloved Duplex Diner closes its doors

Owners looking to open new location in Rehoboth Beach

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Duplex Diner owners Mark Hunker and Jeff McCracken. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Owners of D.C.’s Duplex Diner announced Tuesday that they closed the business immediately after the landlord terminated a sub-lease last month. They also announced that they are searching for a new location in Rehoboth Beach, Del., to open a “Duplex 2.0.”

A note posted to the door reads as follows: “On May 31st JAM Holdings, owners of Duplex Diner since 2014, were notified by our landlord that he was terminating our sub-lease effective July 31, 2024. We have come to an agreement to sell our assets to our general manager who will be creating a new concept in this location, but unfortunately, we must close effective immediately.

“This decision is not made lightly. We know how much The Duplex Diner has meant to so many people who worked here, played here, had our rosé-all-day here, laughed here, cried here, over-imbibed here, celebrated here, found love here, and trusted us enough to leave credit cards on file here. Like us, we hope you have memories that last a lifetime. We leave this community with love and gratitude and will miss this beloved neighborhood institution more than we can describe. Thank you all for making The Duplex Diner a stop on your journey! Stay tuned though! JAM Holdings is searching for a location in Rehoboth Beach to open Duplex 2.0 and continue its legacy.”

The Diner’s general manager, Kelly Laczko, posted a message on social media indicating that she plans to reopen under a new name in the same space. She wrote, “While the Duplex Diner owners may have closed the original spot abruptly, we will be opening your next hang in this location. We remember your order, know where you sit and when you left your credit card. … More to come.”

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