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Same-Sex Couples Sue State for Benefits

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California denies its public employees and their same-sex spouses long-term care benefits under the state's retirement system, a class action claims in Federal Court. The six lead plaintiffs say the California Public Employees Retirement System unconstitutionally bars same-sex partners from enrolling in its long-term care insurance program, though it allows heterosexual married partners of public employees to do so.

CALPERS even permits adult siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents to enroll in the program and receive benefit payouts to provide at-home care to plan beneficiaries. The couples say they want the right to include their loved ones in the plan, as CALPERS repeatedly reminds its employees to do in its information guide.

The complaint cites a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report stating that "approximately 70 percent of Americans over the age of 65 - approximately nine million people - will need long-term care services."

But most people are not covered under private health insurance or Medicare for long-term care in the event that they need help with everyday activities due to frailty, chronic illness or Alzheimer's disease.

"Without long-term care insurance, the high costs of care can force families to make painful choices such as selling a family home to pay the bills, or having a working adult give up a job and income to work unpaid as a primary caretaker for a loved one who is no longer able to care for herself," the complaint states.

That's why plaintiff Michael Dragovich, 51, sought to enroll his spouse Michael Gaitley, 51, in the CALPERS long-term care program.

When he called to request enrollment materials, Dragovich says a program representative told him that "same-sex spouses are ineligible to join" based on federal law.

Shortly after his attorney spoke with CALPERS on his behalf, and was told that same-sex spouses were barred from the program so it could keep its tax-qualified status, Dragovich says CALPERS suspended enrollment for any new enrollees.

"Already almost two years have passed since Dragovich first tried to enroll his spouse," the complaint states.

The class seeks declaratory judgment and an injunction ordering the CALPERS Board of Administration to allow same-sex spouses to join during any of the plan's future open enrollment periods.

The class is represented by Claudia Center with the Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center of San Francisco.

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