Last week we reported that even though lesbian federal employee Karen Golinski won health coverage for her wife — courtesy of a February court ruling — the Office of Personnel Management is still instructing federal agencies to deny the same coverage to all other gay and lesbian feds’ spouses.
Today I asked OPM Director John Berry how his agency can legally extend Federal Employees Health Benefits Program benefits to only one couple, and treat thousands more differently. He said, basically, that the Justice Department’s legal opinion on the Golinski ruling has tied OPM’s hands:
As someone who’s openly gay and has a partner that would love to join the FEHBP program, and I would love to have him be able to join the FEHBP program, because it’s a great program. I look forward to this issue resolving itself, personally. So you can rest assured, I’m watching this issue closely. That being said, it’s the Justice Department that gets to decide what a court ruling allows us to do. And the Justice Department has defined that, how this court ruling, because of the jurisdiction of the court and the direction of the court, it only applies to this one person. That’s what I’ve been told.
I have to do what the Justice Department tells me to do. As a sworn officer, upholding the Constitution, I’m enforcing what the Justice Department’s told me.
Berry pledged to keep pushing to extend health care benefits to gay and lesbian feds’ same-sex partners, and said he hopes Congress will pass a bill granting those rights:
My hope, at the end of the day, is that Congress can act. We’ve had wonderful bipartisan support on this. Sen. [Susan] Collins [R-Maine] has been as strong an advocate as Sen. [Joe] Lieberman [I-Conn.] and Sen. [Daniel] Akaka [D-Hawaii] in the Senate, and we’ve got the same in the House. I think there’s a shot that, even legislatively, we can move forward on this, is my hope. Otherwise, we’ll wait and see what the Justice Department allows us to do, responding to appropriate court action.
However, Senate support for extending same-sex benefits isn’t as bipartisan as Berry suggested. Collins remains the only Republican co-sponsor of S 1910, and no Republicans have signed on to the House version, HR 3485. And with House Republicans dead-set against broadening federal employees’ benefits — gay or straight — I don’t see how same-sex health benefits can possibly pass Congress.
Berry’s comments came a few hours before news broke that President Obama now backs gay marriage.