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DOD computer glitch delays benefits for gay spouses

‘If I should die now, my wife is out of luck’

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Jeff Zarillo, Paul Katami, Sandy Stier, Kris Perry, David Boies, Chad Griffin, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality, Proposition 8, Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA, Prop 8, California, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade
Jeff Zarillo, Paul Katami, Sandy Stier, Kris Perry, David Boies, Chad Griffin, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality, Proposition 8, Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA, Prop 8, California, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

Defense Department (DOD) computers are encountering problems in registering same-sex partners for military benefits in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling striking down a key provision of DOMA. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Kelly Egan, a retired chief master sergeant who served 20 years in the Air Force, says she watched with great interest in June when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.

With the White House and Pentagon announcing that the government would move quickly to ensure that same-sex spouses of federal civilian and military personnel would be eligible for full spousal benefits that had long been denied under DOMA, Egan says she took steps to add her wife as a beneficiary for her military survivor benefit program.

Much to her disappointment, Egan says, her application for the benefit for her wife was denied – not by the military officials with whom she spoke but by the Defense Enrollment and Eligibility Reporting System, or DEERS, a massive computerized database system operated by the Department of Defense.

“The whole screen went black,” Egan told the Blade in describing what happened when a polite benefits clerk at the Pentagon entered her application into a computer terminal. According to Egan, the computer glitch was triggered by the fact that she and her spouse are of the same gender.

“They told me they hope to get this fixed in September,” Egan said. “They said it’s a software issue. But if I should die now, my wife is out of luck.”

Egan said she was told that the same problem is surfacing for active duty and retired military members who are applying for benefits for same-sex spouses both in the U.S. and in military installations overseas.

“The Department of Defense is working alongside the Department of Justice to implement the Court’s decision as quickly as possible,” said Lt. Commander Nate Christensen, a DOD spokesperson, in an email to the Blade. “At this time no decisions have been made,” he said.

A representative of the DEERS system’s regional office that processes benefits for D.C.-area military personnel and military retirees said the office would arrange for a spokesperson to discuss the issue of processing same-sex benefit requests. A spokesperson did not immediately respond.

Egan said the civilian staff member with whom she spoke at the Pentagon and another civilian staffer she visited at the U.S. Army base at Fort Myers in Arlington, Va., were cordial and expressed considerable interest in helping her. But she said they were unable to override the DEERS system’s computer program that steadfastly denied her application for the survivor benefit for her spouse.

“I went to Fort Myers first because the DEERS system can be accessed at any base,” she said. “The guy there was very nice and invited me to sit down. When I told him what I needed the first thing he said was, ‘Where is your husband.’” Egan recounted.

“I said, well, it’s my wife. And he said, OK, great. You’re the first one to come in for that.”

However, like the clerk at the Pentagon, the Fort Myers staffer could not get past the DEERS system block in processing a same-sex spouse.

David McKean, an attorney and former legal director for OutServe-Service Members Legal Defense Network, a group that has assisted LGBT military members, said DOD officials told him six weeks ago that DOD was working hard to fix the problem.

“It is the single point of entry to be qualified for all military benefits,” McKean said of DEERS. “In order to get an I.D. card, in order to have your spouse to qualify for housing or to get health insurance – all that stuff – requires registration in DEERS,” he said.

“And the DEERS system, when you enter your [same-sex] spouse and show your marriage license, as you’re required to do, you get an error message,” he said. “As far as I can tell, this is the only barrier to extending same-sex spouse benefits in the military.”

McKean said he was hopeful that DOD officials, who are aware of the problem, can fix it soon. He said DOD officials told him that people like Kelly Egan and other retired or active duty military members, will have their benefits back dated to June 26, the day the Supreme Court issued its DOMA decision, once the computer programs are corrected.

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10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Military Gayrights

    August 8, 2013 at 9:30 am

    This is unacceptable. In accordance with Title 10 of the US Code, spouses are ALREADY eligible and entitled to health care. There is no requirement in the LAW for DEERS enrollment. DoD is hiding behind computer problems instead of developing a temporary work around. Since when do we hurt military members and their families because of computer problems. Come on DoD…get it in gear! You should have been ready for this….the DOMA repeal was no surprise.
    Additionally, spouses are already entitled (by DoD Instruction) to Commissary, Exchange, MWR, etc privileges, but are being denying these privileges because of DEERS.

  2. Cory Koplin

    August 8, 2013 at 9:37 am

    It's like trying to get your passport done and they close 2 hours early. That change in office hours literally cost me thousands of dollars, 3 days in the hospital and having to move back to Minnesota and completely rework my business plan. Government needs to step up to the plate. People are losing everything they have worked for their entire life because of red tape and ineffective processes.

  3. Military Gayrights

    August 8, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Agreed. Let's fire them all and start over! Good luck and best wishes!!

  4. Military Gayrights

    August 8, 2013 at 9:54 am

    I just have 1 question for DoD… If DEERS crashed and was down for 2 months, would all health care stop for military and their dependents, or would you find a temporary solution?

  5. Nic Pocker

    August 8, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Why should it be delayed?

  6. Military Gayrights

    August 8, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    Nic Pocker That is the million dollar question.

  7. Michael Bedwell

    August 9, 2013 at 12:37 am

    BALDERDASH! Changing the computer system in order to issue military ID cards through DEERS for same sex domestic partners in the military [the SAME first step in the process that would be required for Ms. Egan] was supposed to start MONTHS ago—BEFORE the Supreme's June DOMA ruling—according to the February promise of then-SECDEF Leon Panetta. WHY, obviously, has NOTHING been done? ANSWER: because a mix of incompetents and recalcitrant homophobes in the Pentagon are wagging the dog, CONTINUING to get away with denying equality to as many military gays for as long as they can—and SECDEF Hagel and the Commander-in-Chief don't give a damn—and the gay community is LETTING it happen. Panetta memo: http://www.defense.gov/news/Same-SexBenefitsMemo.pdf.

  8. Michael Bedwell

    August 8, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    BALDERDASH!!! Changing the computer system in order to issue military ID cards through DEERS for same sex domestic partners in the military [the SAME first step in the process that would be required for Ms. Egan] was supposed to start MONTHS ago—BEFORE the Supreme’s June DOMA ruling—according to the February promise of then-SECDEF Leon Panetta. WHY, obviously, has NOTHING been done? ANSWER: because a mix of incompetents and recalcitrant homophobes in the Pentagon are wagging the dog, CONTINUING to get away with denying equality to as many military gays for as long as they can—and SECDEF Hagel and the Commander-in-Chief don’t give a damn—and the gay community is LETTING it happen. Panetta memo: http://www.defense.gov/news/Same-SexBenefitsMemo.pdf

  9. Deegan

    August 9, 2013 at 10:42 am

    #1 That’s me and my wife in that picture! TeeHee!! Thanks Michael Key!
    #2 Two days after the decision, I took my wife and our marriage certificate to base to have her put in DEERS. While the clerk was very sweet and welcoming…and apologetic…we had the same result. It’s software code. I don’t see what the holdup is. I’m sure looking forward to the check for backpay though…

  10. Kelly Egan

    August 9, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    Thanks, Lou. You did a great job on the article. I have to comment on the last paragraph, however (the quote from Mr McKean … “people like Kelly Egan and other retired or active duty military members, will have their benefits back dated to June 26, the day the Supreme Court issued its DOMA decision, once the computer programs are corrected”). With my situation, I can’t get survivor benefits for my wife. They can’t backdate survivor benefits since I can’t sign up for them. If I were to die tomorrow, there would be no proof that I wanted survivor benefits for my wife. Therefore, she would not receive them. I did happen to write down my intentions and get it notarized, but it doesn’t make me confident that it would hold up in a court of law.

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Venezuelan man with AIDS dies in ICE custody

Pablo Sánchez Gotopo passed away at Miss. hospital on Oct. 1

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Pablo Sanchez Gotopo, who was living with HIV/AIDS, died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Mississippi on Oct. 1, 2021. (Courtesy photo)

A Venezuelan man with AIDS died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody on Oct. 1.

An ICE press release notes Pablo Sánchez Gotopo, 40, died at Merit Health River Oaks in Flowood, Miss., which is a suburb of Jackson, the state capital. The press release notes the “preliminary cause of death was from complications with acute respiratory failure, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), pneumonia, acute kidney failure, anemia and COVID-19.”

ICE said U.S. Border Patrol took Sánchez into custody near Del Rio, Texas, on May 17. He arrived at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss., four days later.

“Upon arrival to an ICE facility, all detainees are medically screened and administered a COVID-19 test by ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) personnel,” said ICE in its press release. “Sánchez’s test results came back negative.”

The press release notes Sánchez on July 28 received another COVID-19 test after he “began showing symptoms of COVID-19.” ICE said he tested negative, but Adams County Detention Center personnel transferred him to a Natchez hospital “for additional advanced medical care.”

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations staff in its New Orleans Field Office, according to the press release, “coordinated with hospital staff to arrange family visitation” after Sánchez’s “health condition deteriorated.” Sánchez was transferred to Merit Health River Oaks on Sept. 25.

“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” says the press release.

Venezuela’s political and economic crises have prompted more than 10,000 people with HIV to leave the country, according to the New York-based Aid for AIDS International.

Activists and health care service providers in Venezuela with whom the Washington Blade has spoken in recent years have said people with HIV/AIDS in the country have died because of a lack of antiretroviral drugs. Andrés Cardona, director of Fundación Ancla, a group in the Colombian city of Medellín that works with migrants and other vulnerable groups, told the Blade last month that many Venezuelans with HIV would have died if they hadn’t come to Colombia.

The Blade has not been able to verify a Venezuelan activist’s claim that Sánchez was gay. It is also not known why Sánchez decided to leave Venezuela and travel to the U.S.

ICE detainee with HIV described Miss. detention center as ‘not safe’

Activists and members of Congress continue to demand ICE release people with HIV/AIDS in their custody amid reports they don’t have adequate access to medications and other necessary medical treatment.

Two trans women with HIV—Victoria Arellano from Mexico and Roxsana Hernández from Honduras—died in ICE custody in 2007 and 2018 respectively. Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans woman with HIV who fled El Salvador, died in 2019, three days after ICE released her from a privately-run detention center.

The Blade in July 2020 interviewed a person with HIV who was in ICE custody at the Adams County Detention Center. The detainee said there was no social distancing at the privately-run facility and personnel were not doing enough to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

“It’s not safe,” they told the Blade.

The entrance to the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Elisabeth Grant-Gibson, a Natchez resident who supports ICE detainees and their families, on Wednesday told the Blade that she was able to visit the Adams County Detention Center and other ICE facilities in the Miss Lou Region of Mississippi and Louisiana from November 2019 until the suspension of in-person visitation in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

“Medical neglect and refusal of medical care has always been an issue in the detention center at Adams County,” said Grant-Gibson. “After the facilities were closed to public visitation, those problems increased.”

Grant-Gibson told the Blade she “worked with a number of families and received phone calls from a number of detainees, and I was told again and again that detainees were being refused the opportunity to visit the infirmary.”

“When they did visit the infirmary, they were given virtually no treatment for the issues they were presenting with,” said Grant-Gibson.

ICE in its press release that announced Sánchez’s death said fatalities among its detainees, “statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.” ICE also noted it spends more than $315 million a year “on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to detainees.”

“ICE’s Health Service Corps (IHSC) ensures the provision of necessary medical care services as required by ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards and based on the medical needs of the detainee,” notes the ICE press release. “Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay. All ICE detainees receive medical, dental, and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care.”

An ICE spokesperson on Wednesday pointed the Blade to its Performance-Based Detention Standards from 2011, which includes policies for the treatment of detainees with HIV/AIDS.

A detainee “may request HIV testing at any time during detention” and ICE detention centers “shall develop a written plan to ensure the highest degree of confidentiality regarding HIV status and medical condition.” The policy also states that “staff training must emphasize the need for confidentiality, and procedures must be in place to limit access to health records to only authorized individuals and only when necessary.”

“The accurate diagnosis and medical management of HIV infection among detainees shall be promoted,” reads the policy. “An HIV diagnosis may be made only by a licensed health care provider, based on a medical history, current clinical evaluation of signs and symptoms and laboratory studies.”

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Rachel Levine on becoming four-star admiral: ‘It comes from my desire to serve’

Trans official sworn-in to U.S. Public Health Service

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For Rachel Levine, the appointment to her new role as a four-star admiral complementing her existing duties as assistant secretary for health is another way for the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed presidential appointee to serve.

“I think that this just really comes from my desire to serve in all capacities,” Levine said in an interview Tuesday with the Washington Blade. “To serve the first day in my field of academic medicine and pediatrics, but then in Pennsylvania and now in the federal government, and it furthers my ability to do that.”

Levine, 63, also recognized the importance of the appointment as a transgender person within the U.S. Public Health Service, for which she was ceremonially sworn in on Tuesday

“I think for the LGBTQ+ community, it is a further sign of progress and our president’s commitment to equity, to inclusion and diversity,” Levine said. “So I think that it is a very important milestone, and I’m pleased to serve.”

As part of her duties, Levine will lead an estimated 6,000 public health service officers serving vulnerable populations, including deployments inside and outside the country for communities beleaguered with the coronavirus, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. The role involves working closely with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, whom Levine called her “friend and colleague.”

The U.S. Public Health Service, Levine said, has deployed “many, many times,” including its greatest number ever of deployments to vulnerable populations during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the places the service has deployed, Levine said, was in her home state of Pennsylvania, where she recently served as secretary of health.

Not only is Levine the first openly transgender person to serve in the uniformed health service as a four-star general, but she’s also the first woman to serve in that capacity.

“We have 6,000 dedicated committed public servants really all focused on our nation’s health, and they serve in details to the CDC and the FDA and the NIH, but also clinically with the Indian Health Service, and the federal prison system,” Levine said. “They’re also detailed and deployed throughout the country, and they deployed like never before for COVID-19 as well as the border, as well as dealing with floods and hurricanes and tornadoes.”

Although the Public Health Service is primarily focused on addressing public health disasters within the United States, Levine said it has a record of deployments overseas, including years ago when it was deployed to Africa under the threat of Ebola.

Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra had high praise for Levine in a statement upon news of taking on a leadership position in the service.

“This is a proud moment for us at HHS,” Becerra said. “Adm. Levine — a highly accomplished pediatrician who helps drive our agency’s agenda to boost health access and equity and to strengthen behavioral health — is a cherished and critical partner in our work to build a healthier America.”

Levine, however, was careful to draw a distinction between her appointment within the Public Health Service and being a service member within the U.S. armed forces.

“It is not a military branch, it’s not the armed forces: It’s a uniformed force, so it’s different,” Levine said. “For example, the Army, the Navy, our military, there are two other uniformed branches, and that is ours, the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and NOAA.”

The new role, Levine said, would complement her duties as assistant secretary for health. Although not only secretaries of health have been commissioned to take the uniform, Levine said she wanted to undertake that as part of her role in the Biden administration.

The two appointments were not simultaneous, Levine said, because of a general process she undertook, which was completed just this week.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Levine. During her Senate confirmation process, when she was hounded by anti-transgender attacks in conservative media and rude, invasive questioning by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on her gender identity.

Levine, however, said she hasn’t encountered any hostility regarding her new role (as of now) and shrugged off any potential attacks in the future and said the move is about her career “to serve and to help people.”

“I’ve continued that for our nation as the assistant secretary for health and this is just a further demonstration of my commitment to service,” Levine said. “I don’t know what others will say, but that’s the genesis of my wanting to serve in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and to place on the uniform.”

Levine’s new appointment comes shortly after a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent her a letter dated Sept. 30 calling on her and Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, to issue new guidance for hospital or residential care on mental health needs of transgender people.

Asked about the letter, Levine said mental health issues are under the authority of Delphin-Rittmon and the two “will work together and we will respond.”

Specifically, the senators in the letter call on the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, or BHCC, and experts in the field of adolescent trans care to offer guidance on best practices for inpatient mental health care among these youth.

Asked what the response will look like, Levine said, “We’re going to work on that.”

“We will be looking at what they’re asking for and the requirements, and we’ll talk with them and the stakeholders and we’ll look to issue appropriate guidance,” Levine said.

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Colin Powell, leaving mixed legacy on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ dies at 84

Key figure once opposed gays in military, then backed review

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gay news, Washington Blade, Colin Powell, gay marriage
Colin Powell leaves behind a mixed legacy on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Colin Powell, the first ever Black secretary of state who served in top diplomatic and military roles in U.S. administrations, died Monday of coronavirus at age 84, leaving behind a mixed record on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The world continues to grapple with the pandemic and the public grows increasingly frustrated with its persistence as many remain unvaccinated despite the wide availability of vaccines. Powell was fully vaccinated, according to a statement released upon his death. Powell reportedly suffered from multiple myeloma, a condition that hampers an individual’s ability to combat blood infections.

Rising to the top of the military as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell supported in 1993 Congress moving forward with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that barred openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military.

During a key moment congressional testimony, Powell and other top military officials were asked whether or not allowing gay people in the military would be compatible with military readiness. Each official, including Powell,” responded “incompatible.” Congress would enact “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that year.

Things changed when President Obama took office 15 years later and advocates for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were eager to claim Powell’s voice among their ranks. After all, Powell was highly respected as a bipartisan voice after having served as secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush and endorsing Obama in the 2008 election.

After the Obama administration in 2010 announced it would conduct a review of the idea of allowing gay people to serve openly in the military, Powell came out in support of that process. Advocates of repeal called that a declaration of reversal, although the statement fell short of a full support for gay people serving openly in the military.

“In the almost 17 years since the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ legislation was passed, attitudes and circumstances have changed,” General Powell said in a statement issued by his office, adding, “I fully support the new approach presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week by Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen.”

Congress acted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the policy was lifted in 2011. At the time, Powell was widely considered a supporter of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and publicly counted among supporters of repeal, although the Blade couldn’t immediately find any statements from him to that effect.

In 2012, Powell had similar vaguely supportive words on same-sex marriage, saying he had “no problem with it” when asked about the issue.

“As I’ve thought about gay marriage, I know a lot of friends who are individually gay but are in partnerships with loved ones, and they are as stable a family as my family is, and they raise children,” Powell said. “And so I don’t see any reason not to say that they should be able to get married.”

The Blade also couldn’t immediately find any statement from Powell on transgender people serving in the military. After the Obama administration in 2016 lifted decades-old regulations against transgender service, former President Trump issued a ban by tweet the following year. President Biden reversed that ban and allowed transgender people to serve and enlist in the military in his first year in office.

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