County commissioners voted 5 to 0 earlier this week to offer health insurance to the same-sex domestic partners of its employees. With the vote, Durham County became the first county in the Tar Heel state to offer such benefits, joining the municipal governments of Chapel Hill and Carrboro that also offer the benefit, according to a Raleigh News & Observer report.
“This was the right thing to do,” Commissioner Philip Cousin Jr said after the vote. “This is not a tacit endorsement of a lifestyle but an endorsement of the right to quality of life.”
Under the program, county workers receive $175 in their biweekly paychecks to pay toward health insurance and other benefits. Workers can choose from a menu of benefits and pay according to their choices. Employees who elect to extend their health coverage to domestic partners will pay for any increase in premiums above the money provided by the county, meaning there will be no additional expense to taxpayers.
The battle for domestic-partner benefits has been a long and arduous one for its proponents. A group of the county’s gay and lesbian employees asked for the change in October of last year after the Durham City Council voted to extend the benefit to its workers.
However, county officials said in March that the same benefits could not be extended to its workers after County Attorney Chuck Kitchen cited an 1805 state law against fornication and adultery to say it would be illegal to do so. Additionally, county commissioners thought that its two health insurance providers, Cigna and Wellpath, would refuse to extend benefits to same-sex couples unless unmarried heterosexual couples were included as well.
In June, the winds of change blew in following the US Supreme Court’s decision that a Texas law against sodomy was unconstitutional, striking Kitchen’s point moot. Employees appealed the to the county board to same-sex domestic partner benefits, and this time the North Carolina Department of Insurance told the county that it could issue benefits to same-sex partners, with the two providers also agreeing to the change.