A lesbian employee of St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Westchester County filed a class-action lawsuit on Tuesday claiming that her spouse is entitled to the same medical coverage as the spouses of heterosexual employees.
Since same-sex marriage became legalin New York last July, most companies in the state have extended spousal health benefits to same-sex couples. But self-insured employers, which include St. Joseph’s and other large institutions, are primarily governed by federal, not state regulations. As a result, they may deny health coverage to same-sex couples under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In the lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan, the employee argued that it was illegal to use the Defense of Marriage Act to justify denial of coverage, because the law is discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional.
“I’m not just thinking about our particular situation,” said the hospital employee, who has filed the lawsuit using a pseudonym, Jane Roe, and spoke on condition of anonymity because she said she was concerned about the impact on her job if she complained publicly. The woman has been with her partner for 16 years, she said, and married her last autumn.
“I’m also thinking about the folks who are behind us, the younger people in their 20s and 30s, who are thinking about getting married and who are going to have the same problem,” she said. “It’s just not socially fair.”
A number of lawsuits across the country filed by same-sex couples and their advocates are challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. At least two lower courts have ruled aspects of the act unconstitutional, and the matter is wending its way toward the Supreme Court.
But lawyers for the Westchester couple said they believed their suit was the first to cite a Catholic-affiliated institution and the private insurance company that administers its health plan, Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, for denying coverage.
Generally, lawsuits against the act have been filed against federal agencies.
The suit illustrates what Roman Catholic bishops warned would happen last year when the Obama administration, calling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, announced it would no longer defend it in court. Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, wrote to President Obama to contend that steps toward legalizing gay marriage could push Catholic social service organizations to shut down, rather than violate their moral beliefs. A similar warning came from the bishops in the continuing fight over whether Catholic-affiliated organizations should be required to provide birth control coverage to employees.
“On behalf of my brother bishops, I urge yet again that your administration end its campaign against DOMA, the institution of marriage it protects, and religious freedom,” Archbishop Dolan wrote to President Obama in a Sept. 20, 2011, letter, using the acronym for the Defense of Marriage Act.
St. Joseph’s has more than 1,200 employees. Its insurance plan is self-financed, with Blue Cross Blue Shield acting as the administrator. Self-financed plans are exempt from many state laws, including New York’s Marriage Equality Act. It is up to such employers whether they want to cover same-sex spouses, or to use the federal definition of marriage to exclude them.
The St. Joseph’s employee, who works at St. Vincent’s Hospital Westchester, a division of St. Joseph’s, said in a telephone interview that she applied for health coverage for her spouse last December. She said that after a human resources employee helping her fill out forms kept referring to her new spouse as a “he,” she said, “I think you should know, I did not marry a man, I married a woman.”
The woman said she was told shortly thereafter that she would be denied spousal health care benefits. In May, she received a written denial from Blue Cross Blue Shield. Under the plan, it read, “same-sex spouse and domestic partner is an exclusion under the benefit.”
A spokeswoman for Blue Cross Blue Shield said she would not comment on pending litigation. St. Joseph’s Medical Center did not respond to a request for comment.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Debra S. Cohen of the firm Newman Ferrara, said the class-action suit sought to represent not only married gay and lesbian employees of St. Joseph’s, but all married gay men and lesbians in New York who are covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield and are denied spousal coverage by their employers. The exact number of such people was unknown.
“There’s an extra layer of resistance, or justification, when you are dealing with an institution that has a religious basis for being opposed to same-sex marriage,” she said. “But we believe there are many companies that are not religiously affiliated that also have this double standard.”