Beginning in January, Baltimore County will grant health care benefits to spouses of employees in same-sex marriages if they are legally married in other states, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced Thursday.

The decision comes a month after an arbitrator ruled in favor of two county police officers whose same-sex spouses had been denied benefits by the county in August 2010. County officials had 30 days to decide whether to appeal the arbitrator's ruling, which said the county had violated the women's union contract.

"We just feel this is the right thing to do," Kamenetz said, adding that his administration had been discussing the issue of same-sex benefits for about a year. "It's an important benefit to some of our employees, and I want to keep our employees comfortable in their jobs."

The county's health care review committee — made up of public employee union representatives, the county's labor and insurance commissioners, and other officials — approved the move this week on Kamenetz's recommendation, the county executive said. The decision will apply to all county employees, including those who work in public schools, libraries and the community college system.

Baltimore County's school system already grants benefits to same-sex domestic partners of employees and retirees.

The two police officers had filed grievances last year. The county had started deducting money from their paychecks for their spouses' health coverage, but later denied the benefits.

The officers are pleased that the case led to a policy change for the county, said their lawyer, Susan Sommer of the organization Lambda Legal.

"It's a right that should belong to all county employees married to same-sex spouses out of state," Sommer said. "It's too bad that it took a legal action by these two police officers to achieve this result, but we are very pleased, as are our clients, that not only will their spouses get the benefits now, but other married same-sex couples will be treated fairly now by the county."

The county police union supported the officers in their quest for the benefits. On Thursday, Cole Weston, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, called the decision "long overdue."

"Baltimore County is way behind in this area," Weston said.

The state of Maryland, Baltimore City, Howard County, and Montgomery County offer health benefits for same-sex domestic partnerships, as do a handful of local municipalities, according to Equality Maryland.

The police union has long sought benefits for spouses of members in such partnerships, Weston said.

"They could have honored this years ago when we tried to bargain [for] this," he said. "The reason it's being honored now is because we have a positive arbitration decision."

Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, praised Kamenetz for not limiting the decision to the police department.

"It's great that the county executive is not only honoring the arbitration ruling that came out of the police union, but now all county employees get to benefit," Evans said. "It's great, but there's still a lot of movement that we need to make on the state level for couples who want to be married, and couples who are married and want those marriages to be honored."

The decision will apply only to employees who are legally married in other states. Baltimore County will not extend benefits to those in same-sex domestic partnerships, spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said.

Kamenetz said that in negotiations with the police union this June, the county offered to extend same-sex benefits to members of the department.

"For whatever reason, the police union never took it to their membership for a vote," Kamenetz said.

Weston declined to comment on details of contract negotiations.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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