Louisiana legislators reject state employee health contract because of LGBT protections

(Photo by Julia O'Donoghue, Times-Picayune/NOLA.com)
(Photo by Julia O'Donoghue, Times-Picayune/NOLA.com)

Louisiana House members rejected a state employee health benefits contract extension Friday (Nov. 18) because it included workplace protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers.

House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said his members likely wouldn’t approve the agreement until the LGBT nondiscrimination clause is removed.

State lawmakers are expected to take up the contract again in December.

“If you bring that contract back again, and it has the same language that it does now, we are going to have the same problems,” Henry told Susan West, the head of Louisiana’s Office of Group Benefits, which oversees state employee health care plans.

“It’s not going to get any better the next time you come back,” Henry said.

The contract with Vantage Health Plan, Inc. affects around 10,000 state employees and their dependents’ medical benefits.

Initially during the legislative hearing, West had said that rejecting the contract could endanger state employees’ health care, though she backed off that statement as it became clear how lawmakers intended to vote.

The governor’s office said lawmakers’ decision was irresponsible and puts employees’ health care in jeopardy.

“Rep. Henry’s dangerous approach to this issue could leave thousands of hardworking state employees without their health insurance,” said Richard Carbo, the governor’s spokesman, in a written statement Friday afternoon. “He’s merely grandstanding, yet again, to push a partisan, political agenda.”

In an interview after the contract was rejected, West said no one was in danger of losing health care immediately because of the lawmakers’ decision. But West said she must ask Vantage for an extension in making the state’s payment. Louisiana would have paid Vantage on Dec. 1, but the state can wait a couple of weeks before submitting its billing, she said.

The lawmakers decision places state employees health in middle of a political fight between Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state’s Republican elected officials. The LGBT nondiscrimination clause had been inserted into the health care contract by an executive order from Edwards.

The order requires all reworked state contracts, like the one with Vantage, to include workplace protections for LGBT people. By law, all contracts already include language that protects people from discrimination based on race, gender, religion or political views.

Vantage didn’t have any problem with the provision protecting LGBT people being put into the contract.

“We don’t’ care if that language is in the contract or not,” said Billy Justice, director of marketing and outreach for Vantage, in an interview Friday. “We’ve never discriminated against anyone and we never will. That’s not who we are or what we do.”

But the language made several members of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees uncomfortable. “This is creating a special class,” said state Rep. Lance Harris, the head of the House Republican caucus.

Some accused the governor of trying to legislate from the executive branch. State lawmakers have refused on several occasions to approve legislation giving LGBT people workplace protections. It’s legal in most parts of Louisiana to fire a person for being gay or transgender.

In blocking the contract, the Legislature is following the lead of Attorney General Jeff Landry. Landry has blocked dozens of legal contracts from moving forward this year because they contain the LGBT workplace protections. The attorney general is suing to have the executive order declared null and void.

Several lawmakers said they wanted to wait for the lawsuit to be settled before the health benefits contract moves forward. But the governor’s executive counsel, Matt Block, said that dispute likely won’t be resolved by the court before this contract needs to be approved. Edwards and Landry’s legal teams aren’t due in court until after Thanksgiving.

The fight between the lawmakers and Edwards could put the Office of State Procurement in an awkward place. That agency is under the governor’s authority and has been directed to only sign off on contracts that include the LGBT nondiscrimination clause. But lawmakers are now asking them to approve the contract only if the language is taken out.

“You are putting them in the position of having to approve the contract in violation of the governor’s executive order,” Block said.

But Henry said the governor is the one that has put state employees in a bad spot, not the Legislature. “It is outrageous that he is holding state employees benefits hostage because of this,” he said in an interview.

The LGBT language doesn’t actually have an impact on the health care plans themselves, according to West. Services that would be particular to the LGBT community won’t be offered as a result of the nondiscrimination clause.

“Our plans don’t allow people to change their gender,” she said.

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