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Analysis: Federal Benefits For Same-Sex Couples Moving Swiftly In DOMA's Wake

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Advocates of equal rights for same-sex couples are seeing implementation on the federal level.
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Advocates of equal rights for same-sex couples are seeing implementation on the federal level.

Federal government employees in same-sex marriages could be looking at changes to their benefits and retirement plans, following last week s Supreme Court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.

The Office of Personnel Management has announced that same-sex spouses and families of federal employees are now eligible for federal benefits, and officials at the Department of Defense say they're in the process of determining how benefits will apply to military service members in same-sex marriages. Tom Shoop, editor-in-chief at Government Executive talks about what this means for the federal government and employees in the D.C. area.

What new benefits are now available to federal employees in same sex marriages?

"Pretty much the full range of federal benefits will now be available to employees in same-sex marriages, from health insurance, dental and vision coverage, life insurance, long-term care and retirement benefits for surviving spouses."

How will the new ruling apply to members of the military?

"The military is a little bit different. They haven't come out yet and said exactly how it's going to work out. But Sec. Hagel said in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court decision that they would extend the whole range of benefits to same-sex spouses in the military as well."

Most states including Virginia, still do not recognize same sex marriages. How is the federal government deciding which same sex couples will qualify for federal benefits?

The Office of Personnel Management says that as long as you're in a legally-recognized marriage, than you will be eligible for coverage. In other words, you don't have to be living in a state necessarily that recognizes that marriage, if you have a legally-valid marriage from another state."

How long do same sex couples have to enroll their spouses in federal benefit programs?

"What OPM has done is created a 60-day window for same-sex couples to make changes to their coverage under health insurance, dental and vision, and long-term care. Every year there is an open season to make changes to your benefits plan — they've essentially made a special one that runs until Aug. 26 for employees in this situation to make changes."

What changes could we expect for federal retirement investment plans?

"The thrift savings plan — the government's version of the 401k — they're just beginning to look into what to do with their regulations. So there will be some changes there, typically spouses are allowed to keep the thrift savings plan open, and that rule will presumably apply to people in same-sex marriages as well. Under retirement, the standard retirement plan, employees are eligible to create survivor annuities for their same-sex spouses. There will be more detail on that forthcoming, and that will be a somewhat difficult for employees because it can cause a reduction in their own benefits to provide such a benefit for their spouse."

How prepared are federal agencies to make these changes?

"I think they're fairly prepared because this has been coming for some time. For the last two to three years, the Obama administration has been working on extending benefits to domestic partners in same-sex relationships who are not necessarily married. They were limited under DOMA inwhat they could do for married couples, but they were trying to extend other benefits to domestic partners. So agencies are fairly well prepared and the Office of Personnel Management is moving pretty quickly to implement this."

We'd like to know what questions you have about the impact of the Supreme Court's ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act. We encourage you to share your questions. A panel of experts will answer those questions Monday at noon on the Kojo Nnamdi Show.


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