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Blue Cross resolves glitch in enrolling gay spouses

Lisa Polyak, gay news, Washington Blade

Maryland activist Lisa Polyak encountered problems adding her wife, Gita Deane, to a Blue Cross insurance policy. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

It’s all been resolved. As of Saturday, July 19, federal employee Lisa Polyak, one of the leading activists pushing for Maryland’s marriage equality law, succeeded in adding her legally married spouse and partner of more than 30 years, Gita Deane, to her employee health insurance policy.

The approval came more than two weeks after Polyak’s request to add Deane to her health plan was denied, with a Blue Cross Blue Shield customer service representative informing her that a computer program used to process such requests would not accept same-sex spouses.

On July 20, Polyak, a civilian staff member with the Department of the Army in Aberdeen, Md., discovered to her delight that the quirky computer glitch that initially required Deane’s gender to be listed as “male” in order for her to be approved for Polyak’s health plan was changed to female.

“We have been overpaying for health insurance for so long – 30 years – that we would not have cared if they listed her as a kangaroo, as long as she was covered,” Polyak quipped to the Blade.

Polyak was referring to the fact that the couple had to pay for duplicate health insurance policies for years before states began legalizing marriage between same-sex couples. Once that happened in Maryland earlier this year she still couldn’t add Deane to her health plan because the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

That remaining impediment ended on June 26 when the U.S. Supreme Court declared DOMA unconstitutional.

Jena L. Estes, vice president of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association’s Federal Employee program, said the snafu Polyak encountered represented the rare exception in the health insurance giant’s task of changing its internal procedures to enroll same-sex spouses of federal workers just days after the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision.

“As of today, we process probably about 40 requests a day and those are all being handled very successfully,” Estes said in describing how Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliate companies throughout the country are enrolling same-sex spouses into federal employees’ health insurance plans.

According to Estes, CareFirst, the Blue Cross Blue Shield company providing health insurance in the D.C. metropolitan area, has successfully processed about 100 requests by federal employees like Polyak to add their same-sex spouse to their health plan since July 3.

That’s when the U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued a special guidance directing health insurance companies that provide policies to federal employees to begin enrolling same-sex spouses under the federal health benefits program. The OPM guidance and directive allows federal employees to enroll their same-sex spouses for a 60-day period that ends on Aug. 26.

If they don’t arrange for a same-sex spouse to be enrolled by that date they must wait until Nov. 11, when the annual open enrollment period begins for the federal employee health insurance program. The open enrollment period lasts until Dec. 9.

Estes attributes the problem Polyak experienced to a short period in which some of the Blue Cross Blue Shield companies had yet to fully change their internal systems to adapt to the Supreme Court ruling. She noted that the OPM guidance called for the insurance companies to begin processing same-sex spouse enrollments in the federal employee system beginning July 3, just five business days after the Supreme Court decision.

“So once it came out we put protocols in place immediately and began working diligently to make sure that we could accommodate the requests,” Estes told the Blade in a telephone interview on Monday. “And I believe we’ve done that.”

But in Polyak’s case, those system changes apparently weren’t put in place by the CareFirst operation overseeing federal employee health plans where Polyak worked in Maryland.

“I spoke to Blue Cross Blue Shield reps on July 1, July 8, and July 15 and they told me that they had tried and failed to add Gita as my spouse on my insurance plan,” she told the Blade. “I also tried to add Gita as my spouse on the website. But when I identified Gita as a female…the website rejected my change and would not add her to the list of covered family members.”

Polyak said the Blue Cross Blue Shield customer service representatives were cordial and expressed frustration that they couldn’t immediately override the computer program. She said they couldn’t give her a date when the problem would be resolved.

On July 19, several days after the Blade began making inquiries about Polyak’s case with OPM and Blue Cross Blue Shield, she said a CareFirst official informed her that the computer program had been manually overridden and her request to include Deane on her policy was approved retroactively as of June 26. However, for the time being, Polyak said, the official told her Deane would have to be listed as a male.

That troubled Polyak because another company representative had told her that a medical claim filed by Deane’s doctor would be rejected if the claim identified her as female while the insurance policy listed her as male.

However, that problem was somehow resolved overnight, Polyak said. When she checked her insurance policy online on Saturday, July 20, Deane’s gender had been changed to female.

“That shows how quickly we respond,” Estes told the Blade. “But you know, we really have had maybe 15 days since OPM issued its guidance and a couple of those days were federal holidays. So we’ve been working really diligently and I’m really happy it happened in less than 24 hours,” she said in referring to Polyak’s case.


Deane, Polyak among Maryland’s most influential

Lisa Polyak, gay news, Washington Blade

Lisa Polyak (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Gita Deane and Lisa Polyak were named by The Daily Record as among the state’s most influential people in 2013. The couple was honored as “Marriage Equality Proponents” in the Civic Leadership category.

Deane and Polyak were the lead plaintiffs in the marriage equality lawsuit filed in 2004 by Equality Maryland and the ACLU of Maryland. After a lower court ruled for the plaintiffs, the Maryland Court of Appeals by a margin of 4-3 ruled in 2007 that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage did not violate the Maryland Constitution. Last August, Polyak resigned from her position on Equality Maryland’s board of directors following many years of service.

The honorees, selected by The Daily Record’s editors, are represented in a wide range of categories including Communications. Law, Finance, Health Care, Technology and Philanthropy. For the complete list of honorees, visit


Year in review: Maryland wins marriage equality

Martin O'Malley, Maryland, same-sex marriage, gay marriage, marriage equality, gay news, Washington Blade

Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the marriage bill on Mar. 1 in Annapolis, Md. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Maryland voters on Nov. 6 approved the state’s same-sex marriage law by a 52-48 percent margin.

“Fairness and equality under the law won tonight,” Josh Levin, campaign manager for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a coalition of groups that included the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Maryland that supported Question 6, said shortly after he announced voters had upheld the law. “We’re sure to feel the ripples of this monumental victory across the country for years to come.”

Election Day capped off a long and often tumultuous effort for Maryland’s same-sex marriage advocates that began in 1997 when three state lawmakers introduced the first bill that would have allowed nuptials for gays and lesbians.

Equality Maryland and the American Civil Liberties Union in 2004 filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lisa Polyak and Gita Deane and eight other same-sex couples and a gay widow who sought the right to marry in the state. Baltimore Circuit Court Judge M. Brooke Murdock in 2006 ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but the Maryland Court of Appeals ultimately upheld the constitutionality of the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples the following year.

State lawmakers in 2011 narrowly missed approving a same-sex marriage bill, but legislators approved it in February. O’Malley signed the measure into law on March 1.

The Maryland Marriage Alliance, which opposed the same-sex marriage law, collected more than 160,000 signatures to prompt a referendum on the law — the group needed to collect 55,736 signatures by June 30 to bring the issue before voters on Nov. 6.

Marylanders for Marriage Equality struggled to raise money in the first months of the campaign, but it ultimately netted nearly $6 million. HRC contributed more than $1.5 million in cash and in-kind contributions to the pro-Question 6 campaign, while New York City Michael Bloomberg donated $250,000 in October.

Former National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his wife Chan announced a $100,000 contribution to Marylanders for Marriage Equality during an Oct. 2 fundraiser that O’Malley, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and others attended at gay Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf’s Logan Circle home. The governor also headlined a star-studded New York City fundraiser for the campaign that gay former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman hosted in September.

The Maryland Marriage Alliance netted slightly more than $2.4 million, which is less than half the amount Marylanders for Marriage Equality raised. The National Organization for Marriage, the Knights of Columbus and the Archdiocese of Baltimore are among the groups that contributed to the anti-Question 6 group. Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Family Research President Tony Perkins and Dr. Alveda King, niece of slain civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., are among those who publicly opposed the same-sex marriage law.

The Maryland Marriage Alliance came under increased scrutiny as Election Day drew closer.

The Blade obtained court documents that indicate the Internal Revenue Service in 2011 filed a lien against Derek A. McCoy, the group’s chair, for more than $32,000 in unpaid taxes in 2002 and 2003. He also faced criticism from same-sex marriage advocates for defending a suburban Baltimore pastor who suggested during an October town hall that those who practice homosexuality and approve it are “deserving of death.” A California minister described gay men as “predators” during an anti-Question 6 rally at a Baltimore church on Oct. 21 that McCoy, Jackson, Perkins and others attended.

“Nobody here endorses violence, endorses bullying of any sort in any stance,” McCoy said during a Nov. 2 press conference, two days before a Frederick pastor noted during another anti-Question 6 rally that Superstorm Sandy struck New York City after Bloomberg gave $250,000 to Marylanders for Marriage Equality. “We stand collectively to love our community, to love the constituents who are in our churches and within our broader community in the state of Maryland.”

McCoy said after Election Day the Maryland Marriage Alliance respects “the results that have come from a democratic process.”

The law will take effect on Jan.1.