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Disney's Health Benefits for Gays Draws Protest : Insurance: 15 Florida legislators send letter to company, which declines to respond. Analysts discount concerns.

October 19, 1995|DON LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fifteen Florida legislators have signed a letter condemning Walt Disney Co. for extending health benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian employees, calling the policy "anti-family" and unbefitting a company that provides "wholesome, family-oriented entertainment."

The letter, addressed to Disney Chairman Michael Eisner and the company board, represented the first backlash to Disney's new domestic partner benefit.

The benefit, which has become commonplace in the entertainment industry, was quietly disclosed by Disney in an employee newsletter about two weeks ago, and it takes effect Jan. 1.

Disney spokesman John Dreyer on Wednesday declined to comment, saying that neither Eisner nor other company officials have received a copy of the letter.

However, Dreyer said: "The decision was made and we intend to stick to it." Dreyer said he was unaware of any other organized protest against Disney's new benefit, which the company previously said was "in line with our corporate non-discrimination policy."

In interviews, some of the 15 Florida legislators said they hoped their letter would persuade Disney to reconsider its policy. But if Disney did not, the lawmakers said they had no plans to take any further action.

In recent years, more than 200 public and private employers have extended domestic partner benefits, mostly with little controversy. However, because of Disney's size and reputation, analysts were not surprised by the letter of protest.

In fact, observers said that before Disney made its decision, top management considered the issue for three years, looking particularly hard at the potential effect on its family-oriented image. Among major Hollywood studios, Disney was one of the last holdouts to offer the benefit.

The Florida letter was drafted by freshman Republican state Rep. Bob Brooks, who is a physician, along with the Florida Family Council, a nonprofit Tampa group that faxed the letter to the news media this week.

The two-page letter questioned how Disney could offer benefits to "people with such a high medical risk," saying that ultimately other Disney employees and the American people would have to pay for those increased costs.

"We strongly disapprove of your inclusion and endorsement of a lifestyle that is unhealthy, unnatural and unworthy of special treatment," the letter said. All but one of the 15 signers is Republican.

Independent research, however, has shown that health benefits for gay and lesbian partners have not resulted in increased costs to employers. Less than 1% of the employees sign up for it and most of those who do are lesbians, who have a lower risk of AIDS than do heterosexuals, the research shows.

"The bottom line is that it is not really a big cost; there are a lot of misperceptions," said Ilse de Veer, a benefits consultant at William M. Mercer Inc. who has researched domestic partners benefits.

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Richard Jennings, executive director of Hollywood Supports, a nonprofit group promoting awareness of AIDS and gay issues, said Disney's policy enables gays, who can't get married legally, to have the same benefit as others.

"It's simply a matter of equality," Jennings said. Asked about the Florida letter, he said, "Their comments express their ignorance."

Rep. Brooks, who is an infectious-disease specialist, said he would be interested in reading about research on the costs of offering benefits to gay partners. However, Brooks said, "If you promote a lifestyle associated with sexual diseases, it's going to be very hard to convince me it's not going to change health costs."

John Grant, a 10-year Republican who chairs Florida's Senate Banking Committee, said he signed the letter partly because he is concerned about potential fraud.

"It's opening up the door to a lot of abuses and misuses," he said of domestic partner benefits.

Analysts, however, said employers generally have not had that problem because of strict requirements in qualifying for the benefit.

Under Disney's new policy, for example, an employee wanting to claim the benefit must sign an affidavit affirming that he or she is living with the person who will receive the benefit and prove their financial interdependence.

In the past few years, major employers such as Microsoft, Levi-Strauss, Xerox and Stanford University have instituted domestic partner benefits. Under some employer policies, opposite-sex partners of employees are also eligible for medical coverage. At Disney and other Hollywood studios, the policy covers only same-sex partners of employees.

The benefit has not stirred much controversy at most companies. But in 1993, when Apple Computer planned to open an $80-million customer service center in Texas, tax breaks offered by Williamson County were revoked after a family-rights group and others protested Apple's domestic partner benefits.

In the end, however, after pressure from political and business leaders, the Williamson County Commission reversed itself and voted to give Apple the tax concessions.

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