Gathered with family members in a hospital room in January 2006, Melanie Schertz made her dying father a promise: "It's OK," she recalls saying. "I'll take care of Mom."
Today, Schertz credits Salt Lake City for enabling her to keep that promise. Thanks to an ordinance approved by the City Council a month after the sudden and unexpected loss of her father, Schertz was able to share her health insurance benefits with her mother.
The ordinance prevented the family from being financially devastated later that year, Schertz said, when her mother suffered a serious fall, fracturing the upper palate in her mouth, knocking out a tooth and sustaining a concussion.
"If she had no insurance whatsoever, we would have been done," Schertz said. "We would have lost everything."
Schertz will be among the Salt Lake City employees at the Capitol on Monday sharing their personal stories with state legislators about how they've benefited from the city's "adult designee" ordinance.
Schertz and others want to show support for the creation of a citywide domestic-partnership registry, an action unanimously approved by the City Council last week. Proposed by Mayor Ralph Becker, the registry provides a mechanism by which other Salt Lake City employers can voluntarily extend heath benefits to their employees' adult designees including gay couples, siblings, long-term roommates and parents.
"In this day and age, the typical family structure is not like it was 20 years ago," said Schertz, a crime-lab technician for the Salt Lake City Police Department. "People have to be together to survive."
Beginning at 8 a.m. Monday, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee will be considering SB267, which seeks to stop or invalidate such registries and the recognition of domestic partnerships other than those created by marriage.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, has called Salt Lake City's action "wrong," contending that it violates the letter and spirit of both the state's constitutional amendment and state code limiting marriage to a man and a woman.
Schertz says legislators who oppose the city's action are focusing too much on "the gay issue, when it's not just a gay issue."
"They have blinders on," she said.
According to the Salt Lake City mayor's office, 78 percent of city employees who have utilized the adult-designee provision are not same-sex couples. In addition, 10 percent of those employees have named their mothers as their adult designees.
Andrea Curtis, an executive assistant in the city's department of community and economic development, recently enrolled her mother as her adult designee. In the first month of coverage, Curtis' mother saved $200 on prescriptions alone.
"It really makes a big difference to us," she said.
Curtis said she hopes legislators will "look at the bigger picture" to see how many people potentially can benefit from a domestic-partnership registry.
"In this time when everybody is worried about heath care and how to provide health care for seniors and low-income people, we shouldn't be looking for ways to prevent giving insurance to people," she said. "It doesn't make sense to me. Regardless of your position on gay couples, you need to take a better look at who all is affected by this."
According to the mayor's office, the city has legal authority to create a domestic-partnership registry under the general welfare clause of Utah code, which grants the city the power to "preserve the health and promote the prosperity, improve the morals, peace and good order, comfort and convenience of the city and its inhabitants."
The mayor's office also contends that the ordinance does not conflict with the state statute defining marriage.
Such registries have become more common in recent years, with more than 50 percent of Fortune 500 companies providing heath insurance benefits to their domestic partners as of August 2007, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. In addition, eight of Fortune magazine's 10 largest publicly traded companies offer partner health benefits.
During the 2006 legislative session, former Rep. LaVar Christensen attempted to limit the way in which Salt Lake City offered benefits to adult designees, but the bill died with little fanfare.
The city's adult-designee ordinance passed a legal challenge in May 2006, when 3rd District Judge Stephen Roth ruled that it does not violate sate law or the Utah Constitution. Roth said the ordinance did not appear to create any legal status or rights that are substantially equivalent to a legal marriage between a man and a woman.
Members of the Salt Lake City Council had hoped the domestic-partnership ordinance would not face opposition from the Legislature because it is so similar to the city's adult-designee benefit.
The new ordinance allows qualifying couples who take part in the voluntary program to receive a certificate from City Hall attesting to their domestic-partner status. In order to qualify, individuals must be in a relationship of mutual support, caring and commitment, and be responsible for each other's welfare. In addition, registrants must be each other's sole domestic partner, over 18 years old, competent to contract and share a primary residence in Salt Lake City.City officials plan to have the proper forms ready for Salt Lake City residents to begin registering their domestic partnerships as soon as next week.