By KIMBERLY MILLER, Palm Beach Post
The pets of Palm Beach Community College employees will qualify for discounted group medical insurance beginning in January, but domestic partners are still barred from receiving similar benefits.
School officials sent a memo last week explaining the new voluntary pet benefit available via payroll deduction through the private company Veterinary Pet Insurance.Full-time college employees can receive a 5 percent discount on services because of the college's enrollment in the program, which covers dogs and cats, but also hedgehogs, frogs, guinea pigs, geckos, iguanas and sugar gliders - small flying mammals native to Australia.
In August, PBCC trustees voted down a proposal to allow the domestic partners of full-time employees to receive insurance benefits. The plan wouldn't have cost the school anything because it pays employee premiums only, not those of dependents.
The college buys insurance through a state consortium, which allows each school to decide whether to offer domestic partner benefits.
Rand Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, said it is wrong for the college to put the medical needs of pets above those of the human loved ones of employees.
"The fact of the matter is puppies are covered, partners are not," said Hoch, who sent a letter to PBCC President Dennis Gallon requesting the domestic partner plan be put before trustees again in January. "It's the same benefit; neither costs the college a penny."
The pet insurance benefit did not require trustee approval.
Grace Truman, PBCC spokesman, said the pet insurance is not part of the employee benefits package, and she draws a distinction between the group discount through VPI Pet Insurance and human health insurance.
She said the pet insurance is the same as other group discount items available to college employees such as 12 percent off Dell computers, 15 percent off on bouquets from 1-800-FLOWERS, Com and a $40 membership to Sam's Wholesale Club.
"There's really no comparison," Truman said about the pet insurance and domestic partner insurance. "We get discount offers from companies from time to time and we pass them onto employees without our endorsements."
Truman said she expects the domestic partner benefit plan to come up in the next year or two as college benefit packages are reviewed.
A tie vote of the trustee board killed the proposal in August. The board typically has five members, but had a vacancy at the time of the vote.
Truman said trustees weren't concerned about costs to the college, but potential long-term increases for employees because of additional enrollees in the group plan.
Also, both Gallon and Ellen Grace, PBCC's director of human relations, are advocates of domestic partner benefits. Gallon made the recommendation to add the insurance plan in time for an October open enrollment period.
The United Faculty of Florida supports domestic partner benefits, and several state universities and colleges offer them.
Broward Community College, Miami Dade College, Florida Keys Community College and Hillsborough Community College offer domestic partner benefits.
Private universities including the University of Miami, Nova Southeastern University in Davie and Lynn University in Boca Raton also have plans.
Just two of the state's public universities, the University of Florida and Florida International University, provide domestic partner benefits.
In 2004, Home Depot added an insurance plan for domestic partners after facing criticism from a national gay rights group about its already established pet insurance benefit.
Hoch hopes Palm Beach Community College takes a similar route.
"A PBCC announcement that employees could insure their pets being made a mere 90 days after the PBCC announcement that employees could not insure their domestic partners is an affront to employees with domestic partners," Hoch said. "Hopefully, the college's trustees will act promptly to address this absurd inequity."