Supreme Court's DOMA decision grants thousands of feds access to benefits

Wednesday - 6/26/2013, 7:30pm EDT

By Melissa Dawkins
Special to Federal News Radio

The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision Wednesday to overturn a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) will allow federal employees in same-sex marriages to access benefits formerly only afforded opposite-sex couples.

An estimated 34,000 federal employees are in same-sex relationships — state- recognized civil unions, civil unions or domestic partnerships — according to a Congressional Research Service report published in February obtained by the Federation of American Scientists.

Ruling extends benefits for fed spouses

Currently, same-sex spouses of federal employees are unable to receive such benefits as coverage under either the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP) or the Federal Employee Dental and Vision Benefits Enhancement Act (FEDVIP), according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Additionally, federal employees cannot designate same-sex domestic partners for a survivor benefits under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) or the Federal Employee's Group Life Insurance (FEGLI) Program, according to the OPM.

In the aforementioned programs, only spouses of federal employees are considered eligible for such benefits, and section three of DOMA, defines a "spouse" as "a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife."

However, since the Supreme Court ruled that "spouse" no longer legally designates someone necessarily of the opposite sex, health, vision, dental, retirement and life insurance benefits currently only available to opposite-sex spouses of federal employees will now be available to same-sex spouses as well.

"In the coming days, OPM will be working closely with the Department of Justice and other agencies to provide additional guidance for federal human resources professionals, benefits officers, and our employees and annuitants," acting OPM Director Elaine Kaplan said in a statement. "While we recognize that our married gay and lesbian employees have already waited too long for this day, we ask for their continued patience as we take the steps necessary to review the Supreme Court's decision and implement it. As soon as we have updates to share, they will be posted on our website."

As of 5 p.m. on June 26, OPM's " Frequently Asked Questions" page on same sex domestic partner benefits reflected pre-DOMA regulations.

DOMA was signed into law under the Clinton administration in 1996. In June 2010, President Barack Obama issued a memo, which expanded some benefits, consistent with DOMA, to partners of same-sex employees. The memo clarified, for example, that children of federal employee's same-sex domestic partners are eligible for federal child-care subsidies or services, where applicable.

Benefits for military families to be expanded

After the ruling, the Defense Department announced it will extend all benefits to all spouses of military personal, regardless of sexual orientation.

"Every person who serves our nation in uniform stepped forward with courage and commitment," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement. "All that matters is their patriotism, their willingness to serve their country and their qualifications to do so. Today's ruling helps ensure that all men and women who serve this country can be treated fairly and equally, with the full dignity and respect they so richly deserve."

Now, same-sex spouses of military personnel will be eligible for medical benefits, dental benefits, internment at Arlington National Cemetery and with-dependent basic allowance for housing, according to a DoD press release.

DoD said it will immediately begin to update its identification-card issuance policy to accommodate military personnel with same-sex spouses. DoD estimates the process will take six to 12 weeks, according to the release.

The repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" took effect in September 2011, and allowed gay and lesbian personnel to serve openly in the military. However, certain benefits afforded to service members in the GLBT community that were still out of reach under DOMA are now accessible with the legislation's overturn.

Federal employee unions cheer decision

Several notable federal employee unions have lauded the Supreme Court's decision.

"This important decision will extend to federal workers benefits that have become commonplace in the private sector and for other public employees," Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), said in a press release.

In March, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) filed an amicus curiae brief along with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and other labor organizations to encourage the Supreme Court to rule in favor of striking down DOMA , according to separate release.

"Now that the Supreme Court has declared DOMA unconstitutional, we expect the federal government to move swiftly in changing its rules and regulations to ensure that all federal employees are afforded the same rights and benefits, regardless of whom they choose to marry," AFGE legal rights attorney Leisha Self said in a release.

Melissa Dawkins is an intern for Federal News Radio

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