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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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Glenn Youngkin sworn in as Va. governor

Republican backed teacher who opposed trans student guidelines

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Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin at his swearing in in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 15, 2022 (YouTube screenshot)

Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office on Saturday amid concerns that he will seek to curtail LGBTQ rights in the state.

“Today we gather not as individuals, not as Republicans and Democrats,” said Youngkin after his swearing in. “Today we gather as Virginians.”

Former Gov. Ralph Northam and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) are among those who attended the ceremony that took place at the State Capitol. Terry McAuliffe, who Youngkin defeated in the general election, did not attend because of a COVID-19 scare.

Youngkin during his campaign against McAuliffe expressed support for Tanner Cross, a gym teacher at a Leesburg elementary school who was suspended from his job after he spoke out against Virginia Department of Education guidelines that are designed to protect transgender and non-binary students. Youngkin has also said he does not support allowing trans children to play on sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity.

Youngkin on Thursday named Elizabeth Schultz, an anti-LGBTQ former member of the Fairfax County School Board, to his administration.

“We will remove politics from the classroom and focus on the essentials,” said Youngkin in his inaugural speech, without specifically mentioning LGBTQ students.

He added “parents should have a say in what is taught in schools.”

Youngkin has also expressed his opposition to marriage equality, but stressed it is “legally acceptable” in Virginia and would “support that” as governor.

Lieutenant Gov. Winsome Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares also took office on Saturday.

Winsome, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, is the first woman and first female of color elected lieutenant governor. Miyares, a former House member whose mother was born in Cuba, is Virginia’s first Latino attorney general.

Youngkin in his inaugural speech noted “the people of Virginia just elected the most diverse leadership” in the state’s history. Youngkin’s first executive order ends “the use of” so-called “critical race theory” (which is not taught in Virginia schools) and other “divisive concepts” in Virginia’s public schools.

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Wednesday.

Republicans control the House by a 52-48 margin. Democrats have a 21-19 edge in the Virginia Senate.

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Va. school board names new chair who called for burning books

Kirk Twigg backed torching of materials with “sexually explicit” content

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(Screenshot via WUSA)

The Spotsylvania County School Board voted Monday to name Kirk Twigg, who advocated for burning books he deemed “sexually explicit” in November, as its new chair. 

His win gives conservatives the majority on the board as Republicans across the country continue an effort to ban books dealing with LGBTQ issues and racism from schools. 

Spotsylvania County has been involved in the controversy from the beginning, voting last year to remove books containing “sexually explicit” materials — only to rescind the order a week later.  

Monday’s board meeting, Twigg’s first as chair, would prove to be disorganized and, at times, unruly. 

Twigg’s first order of business was to call an unscheduled, closed-door session, which may have violated Virginia’s open meeting requirements. According to Virginia Code, a closed meeting cannot be called without a public body approving a motion that states the subject matter and the purpose of the meeting, as well as an applicable exemption from open meeting requirements.    

After the board returned from the closed-door session, Twigg said well-regarded Superintendent Dr. Scott Baker would be fired without cause. Baker had already announced he would be resigning at the end of the school year in December. 

After Baker decided to resign, a longtime Spotsylvania resident penned a letter in the Free Lance-Star, calling him “the finest superintendent, by far.”

“Dr. Baker is trusted and respected by parents, students and employees of Spotsylvania Schools; and he never lost sight of his mission for good reason,” it read. “He did so despite the noise and disruption from those few board members dedicated to bringing political disruption and dissidence into our public educational system. Shame on the few.”

As Twigg made the announcement, another member of the board interrupted him, saying: “Um, Mr. Twigg, no he is not. You need to make a motion — there needs to be a motion and a vote.”

Board members continued to speak over each other as conservative members attempted a vote. But Board Member Nicole Cole told the chairman she had comments. 

“I believe that the board members who have lodged this termination owe our citizens and our students of Spotsylvania County a justification for firing Dr. Baker,” said Cole. “You have not stated any justification or ability to fill the position. How is this good for the students, the children of Spotsylvania? How does this make sense?”

In a rebuke of the chaotic meeting, she added that Twigg “couldn’t even properly chair a meeting.”

After approximately 7 minutes of heated discussion where members from both sides got noticeably frustrated, the board voted 4-3 to fire Baker. 

Twigg, Lisa Phelps, April Gillespie and Rabih Abuismail, who also advocated for burning books, voted in favor. 

The Free Lance-Star reported that Baker was escorted from the building before the board returned from the second closed-door meeting. 

An emergency meeting has been scheduled for Friday to name an interim superintendent.

“It’s just very sad to hear that a superintendent who has been fully engaged in this community for 10 years is just let go with no rhyme or reason,” said Board Member Dawn Shelley, while noting Baker’s accomplishments. 

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Melissa Etheridge to host Heather Mizeur fundraiser

Virtual event to take place on Tuesday

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Heather Mizeur, left, with Melissa Etheridge. (Photo courtesy of Heather Mizeur)

Singer Melissa Etheridge next week will hold a virtual fundraiser for Heather Mizeur’s congressional campaign.

The fundraiser will take place on Tuesday at 8 p.m. with tickets starting at $50. Supporters who donate at least $250 will be able to speak with Etheridge and Mizeur in a private Zoom room.

Mizeur, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates who lives on the Eastern Shore with her wife, is running against anti-LGBTQ Republican Congressman Andy Harris in Maryland’s 1st Congressional District. Mizeur ran for Maryland governor in 2014.

Mizeur on Thursday noted to the Washington Blade that her congressional campaign has raised more than $1 million.

“It’s going really, really great,” said Mizeur.

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