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For the Benefit of Mr. Pitt

Another step lost for same-sex couples seeking health benefits from the university

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"We are definitely appealing," says ACLU lawyer Christine Biancheria, who represents seven gay and lesbian Pitt employees dealt a legal setback last week in their effort to get the University of Pittsburgh to offer health benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees.

 

Since 1999, Pitt has blocked the city's Commission on Human Relations from hearing the case of seven gay and lesbian Pitt employees seeking health benefits for their partners. On Jan. 15, Court of Common Pleas Judge Robert Gallo issued a permanent injunction, ruling that Pitt is not discriminating against its workers and has "no legal obligation" to grant these benefits. It prevents the seven plaintiffs from pursuing their Commission case.

 

"We've never had a trial with witnesses and evidence or anything," says Biancheria. "I can't tell you exactly what Pitt is paying for these litigations, but I can pretty much guarantee that it's phenomenally more than the cost of these benefits -- even over the course of years."

 

According to plaintiff Bruce Venarde, of the 60 elite research institutions in the American Association of Universities -- including Pitt -- 45 provide the benefit. Thirty-six of the country's 50 largest corporations do as well. Venarde says he has found in his own research that schools instituting same-sex health benefits have seen only 1 percent rises in costs, due to the small number of those entitled -- a negligible amount of the total budget for a school Pitt's size.

 

But the cost differential is not negligible to another plaintiff, Ray Anne Lockard. She pays hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket for prescription charges every month for her partner on disability, she says. Even with help from Medicare, they still feel a strong fiscal pinch because of Pitt's lack of health coverage. She says she is both a long-time Pitt worker and loyal to her relationship. "I'm doing my part," she says, "but they won't support my family by giving health benefits to my partner. It's abominable."

 

Robert Hill, Pitt spokesperson, released a statement saying, "We are ... pleased that the court agrees with our legal positions that the city ordinance never required us to offer the benefits and that using marriage as a basis for offering the benefits is not discriminatory."

 

Concludes Biancheria: "The higher up you go in the ranks, the more bigotry there is entrenched at the administration."

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