WB offering same-sex coverage

Warner Bros. is extending in-house health insurance to include its employees’ same-sex domestic partners, the studio announced Wednesday. It’s the fourth major entertainment conglomerate recently to take this hotly debated policy step.

So far, only MCA/Universal, HBO and Viacom have allowed a similar version of same-sex coverage in their policies.

Other Hollywood giants like 20th Century Fox, Sony and Disney are considering a similar move, sources said, but haven’t acted on it so far.

This decision will go into effect Aug. 1, coinciding with a larger restructuring in the WB corporate health-care program, and directly benefit about 3,500 employees who are under the company’s newly created independent health program.

“We wanted to implement all health-care changes simultaneously,” said WB benefits veep Dagne Vicente, referring to the two years it took to decide on and carry out the entire plan.

This should come as a surprise to the four health management organizations retained by WB, all of which were given the news along with the press Wednesday.

Kaiser Permanente, Healthnet, Maxicare and Pacific Care will all have to consider whether to follow WB’s in-house policy in allowing same-sex partners to be covered under the existing deal.

This means that more employees could soon be covered by the new policy, subject to approval of their HMO. Currently, only one-third of WB’s employees uses an HMO; the company directly insures the rest.

“Healthnet follows the employer’s rules of eligibility in determining who is covered in their group,” Healthnet media relations director Don Prial said. “This eligibility ruling is included in the group service agreement between our customer and Healthnet.”

Late Wednesday, the three other HMOs could not be reached for comment on their policies. Sources said that many HMOs won’t cover same-sex partners for fear that premiums will skyrocket.

Richard Jennings, executive director of Hollywood Supports, a group battling discrimination based on sexual orientation or HIV status, applauded WB’s move.

“This policy has already happened in the high-tech industry because companies have realized that if they want the brains, they have to come up with this,” Jennings said. “And with WB’s action, we are on the verge of seeing the same thing happen in our industry.”

The governing board of the Writers Guild of America West recently voted unanimously to recommend to their health-fund trustees the adoption of a similar policy. A decision is expected at next month’s WGAW trustee meeting.

Most such policies do not include heterosexual unmarried couples because, it is argued, they have chosen not to marry while gay couples legally cannot.

HBO’s policy, adopted June 3, covers all the company’s 1,840 employees in situations that resemble marriage. MCA’s plan, cleared in May 1992, offers a choice where only one health-care provider out of a larger, undisclosed number covers same-sex partners.

“It has been well received by the populace here,” said an MCA spokeswoman, who refused to disclose the number of HMOs, specific benefits or employees’ program use.

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