News

Same sex ruling impacts health care, too

Written by Ben Allen, General Assignment Reporter | Aug 14, 2014 4:00 AM

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Photo by Ben Allen/witf

Kelly Wiant, left, and Kristen Zellner, right, got married May 3 in Delaware.

(Harrisburg) -- More than a dozen states had already legalized same-sex marriage by the time Pennsylvania’s gay marriage ban was overturned. But the impact of a court ruling can be hard to determine immediately.

Walk into the Abrams and Weakley pet store in north Harrisburg, and you’ll see organic pet food, eco-friendly toys, and a bundle of locally made goods. Kristen Zellner has owned this shop for 5 years, and for most of that time, she has had to pay for health insurance on her own.

"My policy was about $475 a month. That was a private policy that I bought several years ago when I got the business."

"What does it cost us now? Nothing."

Why is it nothing? Because one day in 2009, Kelly Wiant came in to Abrams and Weakley with her dog Darcy, looking for special pet food. By the summer of 2011, Wiant, an associate pastor at Market Square Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, was dating Kristen. And now, they’re married, which allows them to cut their insurance costs.

"I think it’s a great relief because I feel like I can do more now financially with the business. I can put some of the money into other things like advertising, improving things and we aren’t as tight, because it cost me over 5,000 something a year."

Zellner and Wiant got married in Delaware earlier this year, not knowing it would soon be legal in Pennsylvania. And Kristen has actually been on Kelly’s health insurance since 2013 because the Presbyterian Church extended coverage to same-sex couples. With same-sex marriage now legal in Pennsylvania, more employers are doing the same.

Scott Collins works in Centre County and has been with his partner Matt Yarnell for 14 years.

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"As soon as Pa. was legal to have same sex marriages, my employer actually about a month or two later, they opened re-enrollment and you could add your same sex partner on."

Collins ended up staying on Yarnell’s policy instead of switching over though. Mount Nittany Medical Center waited for the law to change before revising its health insurance policy. Still, Collins says the hospital is really accepting of his lifestyle, and he sees it in policies on patient visitors.

"In the past, we’ve had same sex partners come through, I know a lot of some places, other hospitals, if you’re not immediate family, you’re not immediately on the approval list, you can’t come in the room. Our hospital has never been like that as long as I’ve worked there."

Across the midstate, employees are starting to see equal treatment. Penn State Hershey Medical Center and College of Medicine started offering domestic partnership benefits to its 10-thousand employees in January 2009. Jane Quenzer is a coordinator for benefits administration at the Medical Center.

"We’ve always maintained a culture of diversity and respect for individuals, and individuals had come to us and expressed a need to find coverage and they couldn’t afford coverage for their partner. So we agreed, there was some funding available, and we agreed that we would use those funds to help offset the cost that employees were incurring for their same-sex domestic partners."

She says it costs Penn State Hershey about $4,200 to add a person to its coverage, on top of any premiums that the policy holder pays. So far, between 20 and 30 people have joined its health plan since the court decision.

Meanwhile, brochures for Pinnacle Health employees seen as recently as July 9th still read that it only offers coverage to opposite sex partners. However, Kelly McCall, a spokesperson for the Pinnacle, says brochures will be updated, because Pinnacle offers coverage to all legal spouses.

Wellspan says it’s evaluating its policy and will make any changes by the fall.

Health insurance sounds like such a small part of marriage, but for Kristen Zellner, owner of the pet store in Harrisburg, there’s a whole lot of feelings behind it.

"It’s nice to go to the doctor, and pull out my card, and the people ask me who’s the cardholder, and I say my wife. I was really nervous about that at first, and I just get big smiles – congratulations."

Zellner and her wife Wiant say if a doctor or nurse or other health care professional now has to care for a gay or lesbian person, they may be more likely to accept their sexual preference. And they hope with more benefits available to same-sex couples, more people will seek care in the first place.

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