July 24, 2013 at 4:00 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Blue Cross resolves glitch in enrolling gay spouses
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.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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