​Gay marriage ruling may lead to health insurance risk

While the Supreme Court's ruling last week on same-sex marriage was a victory for gay rights, it could lead to some fallout when it comes to benefits for both gay and heterosexual couples.

Domestic-partner benefits may decline as employers reassess their human-resources (HR) plans following the ruling, according to Aon Hewitt, which estimates that 77 percent of employers currently offer same-sex domestic partner health care coverage. Many employers extended these benefits because gay couples often didn't have the right to marry, but now that marriage is legal for them nationwide, HR experts say some of those companies may drop domestic partner benefits.

Even before the Supreme Court made its ruling, some companies were already tweaking their benefits, given that 37 states and the District of Columbia had legalized gay marriage. Verizon (VZ) and Delta Air Lines (DAL) were among those that gave ultimatums to their employees: Get hitched, or lose your partner's health care coverage.

Verizon gave same-sex couples in states where it was legal six months to get married, or else forfeit the benefits. The company said its reasoning was to level the playing field for both gay and straight couples.

Domestic same-sex partner benefits were created "to equalize benefits for spouses and same-sex couples who couldn't get married," said J.D. Piro, senior vice president and national practice leader in the Aon Hewitt Health Law Group. "The question is if it's still needed. The answer for every employer will be different."

About 22 percent of companies polled by The Erisa Industry Committee earlier this year said they would drop benefits offered to domestic partners if the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage. The good news for domestic partners who rely on these benefits is that more than two-thirds of companies said they would keep them if the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage.

Companies most likely to drop health care coverage might be those that offer domestic benefits only to same-sex couples, given that the reason for doing so was to provide benefits to people who weren't legally able to get married, said Lenny Sanicola, senior practice leader at WorldatWork, a nonprofit HR association. Companies that offer benefits to domestic partners, regardless of gender, may be more likely to keep those benefits.

"There are many couples who choose not to get married for various reasons," Sanicola said. "Companies realize there is a lot of talent out there, including people who are in a relationship and committed, but not in a marriage situation."

If a company phases out same-sex domestic partner benefits, couples who aren't prepared to tie the knot still have options, noted Scott Belsky, government relations manager at GoHealth, an online health insurance exchange.

Under the Affordable Care Act, individuals who get dropped from a partner's health insurance plan can enroll through what's called a "qualifying life event," Belsky noted. These events allow individuals to buy health insurance through the state or federally run exchanges outside of the annual enrollment period.

But even before the Supreme Court ruling, some people had moved off their domestic partner's insurance plan in favor of buying an individual plan through Obamacare, Belsky said. "They are often getting tax credits or were finding plans that were cheaper than through" their partner's workplace, he said. "That will be accelerated by the Supreme Court ruling."

Even though gay couples can now get married across the country, other issues are at stake. Some states don't have antidiscrimination laws, so gay couples there may be wary about getting married in case they "out" themselves and suffer negative consequences, such as being denied services or housing, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which is urging employers to maintain their domestic-partner benefits.

"If an LGBT employee is, in effect, 'outed' by being required to obtain a public marriage license in a state that doesn't provide explicit non-discrimination protections, it could place that employee and their family at risk of being denied credit, housing and public accommodation," said HRC legal director Sarah Warbelow in a statement. "These core elements of daily life could be compromised for LGBT families, even in states that might honor their marriage license."