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Interest grows in benefits for gays' partners

Institutions may change more slowly than individuals, but some long-held corporate attitudes are clearly loosening up.

When the Lotus Development Corp. began offering medical benefits in 1991 to partners of its gay and lesbian employees, it was in the company of small, private ventures like Ben and Jerry's ice cream.

The first really big domino _ an AT&T or Xerox _ has not fallen yet on medical benefits, but predictions that the trend would end with Lotus have not come true.

"We're seeing a tremendous interest in considering offering domestic partner benefits," said Andrew D. Sherman, a vice president at the Segal Co., the Boston-based benefits consultants.

Research is answering companies' most obvious objection _ cost _ to increasing employee benefits at a time when benefits generally are being cut. The number of people who use partner benefits, it turns out, is lower than expected and the actual cost of enrolling a partner is less than for a married spouse.

"The single most expensive medical cost is pregnancy-related," Sherman said. "Domestic partners are statistically less likely to get pregnant. They are also younger than average." The new information has broken down some resistance among plan sponsors.

For many companies, especially those with non-discrimination clauses that include sexual orientation, the question of partner benefits is simply one of equity. As more gay and lesbian workers come out, the need to devise a policy becomes apparent.

One result is that inquiries are beginning to come from the upper ranks. "Initially, all the interest came at the grass-roots level, from employees," Sherman said. "We are starting to see interest from the top down."

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