Highmark to insure same-sex couples in Pennsylvania

Policy reversal expected by spring

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Highmark Inc. could be offering family health plans to same-sex Pennsylvania couples on the retail market as soon as early spring, according to a company spokesman.

While many health carriers already offer family or spousal plans to same-sex couples and explicitly recognize same-sex marriage across all products, Highmark is not among them -- at least not when to comes to retail plans sold to individuals and family policies being sold through, and alongside, the new federal health insurance marketplace.

The policy came to light when Harrisburg couple Carl Bechdel and Dan Miller, who were wed in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2012, tried to buy a retail family plan through Highmark. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on the couple's experience Feb. 14.

Highmark said at the time that the reason it didn't issue family or spousal dependent coverage to same-sex spouses was partly because Pennsylvania doesn't recognize such marriages as valid, and also because its health care exchange policy offerings were submitted to the federal government in June 2013, before the U.S. Supreme Court stuck down a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

But Highmark spokesman Aaron Billger said Monday that the Pittsburgh insurer is now in the process of changing its policy offerings, having submitted new product designs to both the state Department of Insurance and the federal government's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to obtain the necessary approvals.

The insurer, he said, has asked for an "expedited review" of those new products.

The issue is not a matter of pricing fairness -- two married individuals, regardless of gender, don't get any kind of price break when applying for family coverage on the retail market, or through the Affordable Care Act's HealthCare.gov website. Two individual plans cost the same as one spousal-dependent plan.

But it was a matter of common courtesy in the view of Mr. Bechdel and Mr. Miller, and a matter of fairness to U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, a Pennsylvania congresswoman who wants to be the state's Democratic Party nominee for governor.

"Last week I called on Highmark to expand their health insurance plans to include same-sex couples," she said in a statement. "I applaud them for addressing this issue by taking a step in the right direction towards equality."

Highmark also operates in Delaware and West Virginia. In West Virginia, like in Pennsylvania, Highmark does not currently offer family or spousal dependent retail plans to same-sex couples. But in Delaware, where same-sex marriage is legal, the insurer does offer such plans.

Highmark also recognizes such marriages through employer-based coverage, so long as the employer chooses to recognize those marriages and offer such coverage. So in Pennsylvania, if a company offers health benefits to same-sex spousal dependents, Highmark would also recognize the marriage through its benefits plan.

UPMC Health Plan and Aetna already offer spousal or domestic partner policies to same-sex couples in Pennsylvania.

Other Blue Cross Blue Shield plans have recently been forced to reconsider their same-sex policy strictures, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.

That insurer issued family coverage to same-sex married couples and domestic partners last year. It then canceled those policies, then reinstated them after protests from the affected couples.

Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.

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