Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson's firm position on his domestic-partners benefit plan isn't gaining much traction, even among groups who usually back the mayor's ideas.

In fact, Anderson's staunch opposition to opening up health-care options to a wider array of city employee dependents is being panned by health-care advocates, who say the mayor is sacrificing greater health-care access at the altar of gay rights.

Those advocates favor a new City Council proposal, which would create an ordinance offering employees who have other dependent relationships — like parents living with adult children, adult siblings, even roommates — the ability to access health-care benefits for those dependents.

That plan would also keep benefits for unmarried couples and their children, said Councilwoman Jill Remington Love, who plans to bring the ordinance to the City Council before year's end. That ordinance would supersede the executive order Anderson signed Wednesday giving unmarried domestic partners of city employees access to health care.

Anderson has opposed the council plan, saying it avoids the political statement he wants to make on equal rights for gay and unmarried couples and could cost too much.

However, health-care advocates — some of the mayor's biggest supporters — say the mayor should support the plan that offers health care to the most people.

"The more people you can get covered the better," said Dr. Scott Leckman, a local physician who has been outspoken about creating a universal health-care system. "With so many people uninsured I welcome any chance to get more people covered."

And while they might personally favor gay rights, advocates don't want the political issue to impede offering greater access to health care.

"We're just sympathetic to covering the most people in the most cost-effective way possible," said Jodi Hillman, health program director with Utah Issues. "The kind of statement the mayor is trying to make, it's funny, it does take us away from the issue we are trying to work on."

On that point Dr. Joseph Jarvis, president of the Utah Health Alliance, agrees.

"Health-care reform is an issue for everybody whether they're gay or not," he said.

Even advocates in the gay community say they support opening up health-care options to a wider range of people, at the possible cost of diluting a political statement on gay rights.

"In the end if more people end up with health-care coverage and gay and lesbian couples end up with coverage that's a good thing," said gay Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, who appreciates the mayor's political statement but has no problem expanding health-care options to more people. That said, McCoy said he would still like the City Council to recognize the sentiment that gay and lesbian families are worthy of equal rights.

Anderson, who has often championed universal health-care coverage in the United States, says offering coverage to the wide array of dependents would increase the premiums current city employees would have to pay.

"We know that we have council members who are anti-gay and lesbian," Anderson said. He added, "This opens the door for city employees to bring people into their households who have enormous health-care costs and saying now they should be on the city plan. It's the employees who are going to have that added cost of claims."

But the city's benefits administrator Jodi Langford said there is no data showing how such a wide-open dependent plan would impact premiums.

Currently, the city pays roughly $250 every two weeks for their employees to have health-care coverage. If that employee wants to add a dependent it costs $85 per paycheck for the most popular plan. Those $85 bimonthly payments might cover the additional claims that would arise from new dependents being added, Langford said. However, there is no data showing whether that $85 would be enough or if premiums would have to be increased to cover those additional claims, Langford said.

Love said she feels she has enough votes on the City Council to pass her ordinance, which would allow people in all kinds of relationships, with some sort of financial dependence on a city employee, to qualify for health-care coverage.

The ordinance would incorporate what Anderson did in his executive order providing benefits to unmarried partners but expand those benefits to a wider range of people.

"I don't really care what their relationship is; for me, I'm focused on getting benefits to those who need them," Love said.

State Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, said he would have to see the specifics of Love's plan but says on the surface it doesn't appear to violate state law like Anderson's did.

"In concept you can indeed separate out the question of insurance and you do not need to implicate it in the larger question of marriage," he said.

Christensen's concerns that Anderson's plan elevated gay marriage to the same status as traditional marriage caused the city's health benefits administrator — Public Employees Health Program — to decide to file for a court opinion on the plan's legality before it will administer it.

PEHP plans to file for that court opinion next week. That court opinion would likely be unneeded if the council goes ahead and passes an ordinance providing benefits to the wider spectrum.

"It would totally become a moot point if the council acts," Christensen said.


E-mail: bsnyder@desnews.com