Pets, Health Care and Political Sensitivity

A recent article on pet insurance for federal employees stirred up a hornet’s nest. Here is what happened.

Last Friday, we published a column on Pet Insurance, Domestic Federal Employee Partners, and Health Insurance. The column referenced an offer by Aetna to provide pet insurance for federal employees. The ad caught our eye as it offered a 5% discount on pet insurance for federal employees and had a link to for those who may want to get a form of health insurance for the family pets.

One writer who appears to frequently write about gay issues took issue with it and complained that “while federal employees can buy pet insurance ‘in these challenging economic times,’ LGBT workers are still prohibited from purchasing policies for their partners or spouses by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — a federal law which denies federal benefits to legally married same sex couples.”

As many readers know, the Office of Personnel Management has made expanding federal employee benefits to benefit LGBT federal employees a priority of the agency.

Within a few hours after our newsletter was distributed, OPM issued a press release on the topic. The press release starts out: “Stories claiming that the federal government offers pet insurance to federal employees, and juxtaposing that benefit with the fact that the federal government cannot under current law provide health insurance benefits to federal employees’ domestic partners are grossly inaccurate.”

When the news story took on a twist about domestic partners of federal employees not being to get health insurance through the federal employee program, it apparently scored a direct hit on the political and social sensitivities with the federal government’s central human resources agency. “Aetna has apologized for using the reference to FEHBP in its communication on this discount program. OPM regrets that Aetna’s error is being cited by some as evidence that same-sex domestic partner health insurance benefits for federal employees are not a priority by OPM and the Administration. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The OPM release highlighted the administration’s “strong support of the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, which will provide full benefits to same-sex partners of federal workers.”

By the weekend, the story about the pet insurance being offered to federal employees was publicized in several publications that compared the availability of pet insurance with the lack of health insurance available for domestic partners of federal employees.

Aetna apparently quickly changed its ad to eliminate any reference to the federal employee health insurance program.

The bottom line is that federal employees can apparently still get the discount if you want to insure your pet but the discount is not part of the health benefits program negotiated by OPM. The agency apparently wanted to let everyone know it is a strong advocate for domestic partners benefits and was stung by the Aetna ad. No doubt, the turn of events and a unpredictable spin on the issue that would not have occurred to most readers probably surprised the company and OPM in a public way shortly before the federal open season for changing or adding federal insurance is about to begin.

And, according to one reader, one agency quietly offers pet insurance through the NASA Employee Benefits Association as well as cheaper rates than the government-wide life insurance program (FEGLI). NASA, apparently, has offered these and other benefits through an association of employees but has remained above the fray on extolling the virtues of benefits for domestic partners–probably because they are focused on the overall mission of the agency.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47