Same-sex marriage decision may not affect health benefits

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor in June 2013 effectively redefined the term “spouse” to include all legally married same-sex spouses for all federal tax and ERISA Title I purposes. While the landmark ruling made clear how employers were to treat same-sex spouses as it pertains to retirement plans, it had no effect on health plans, leaving many employers wondering how they should proceed next.

In an interview with The Oklahoman, employee benefits attorney Jim Prince explained that health plans are not subject to the same ERISA requirements that apply to retirement plans, and no federal law, including the Affordable Care Act, specifically requires employers to provide spousal coverage of any kind. Furthermore, nothing in federal law expressly requires employers to provide equal treatment to same-sex spouses as it relates to health coverage. However, he warned employers of the potential risks of not doing so.

“Employers who don’t treat same-sex spouses the same as opposite-sex spouses may leave themselves open to federal and state law discrimination lawsuits,” said Prince. “While Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act doesn’t specifically prohibit discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation, it makes discrimination based on one’s sex or gender lawful. And in recent years, there’s been a growing trend of lawsuits claiming that gender stereotyping — for example, the expectation that men should only marry women — has resulted in claims of disparate treatment and disparate impact.”