Merrill Broadens Employee Benefits

Merrill Lynch is relaxing its health insurance policies beginning Jan. 1, 1999, allowing brokers and other employees to add "domestic partners" and extended family members to their plans.Pat Crowley, Merrill's senior director of organizational change and wellness, tells RR that insurance coverage will be extended to "one other qualified household member" who meets a certain set of criteria established

Merrill Lynch is relaxing its health insurance policies beginning Jan. 1, 1999, allowing brokers and other employees to add "domestic partners" and extended family members to their plans.

Pat Crowley, Merrill's senior director of organizational change and wellness, tells RR that insurance coverage will be extended to "one other qualified household member" who meets a certain set of criteria established by Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the company's insurance carrier. Age is one of the limiting factors (a 65-year-old parent, for example, would not be eligible because he or she is covered by Medicare) and the person must meet the IRS's definition of a tax dependent, Crowley says.

"Every couple of years, we review our policies to ensure that we are competitive and we're in a position to attract and retain talent," Crowley says. Currently, only spouses are eligible for insurance coverage. But during open enrollment this month, employees will be able to add to their plans qualified same-sex partners, opposite-sex partners and nontraditional dependents who live with them.

Furthermore, Merrill has also revised its bereavement policies to acknowledge the loss of a domestic partner (for funeral leave time), and extended employee relocation benefits to cover domestic partners as well as spouses, adds Stephanie Kiefer, vice president for human resources policy.

National figures indicate that about 3% of opposite-sex partners eligible for coverage under the health plan will elect to join the plan, while about 1% of the same-sex partners who are eligible can be expected to sign on, Crowley says. The newly expanded coverage applies to about 63,000 employees worldwide, although some Asian countries prohibit benefits for unmarried partners by law or by custom, she notes.

Response to the new policies from employees and the general public has been mixed, Crowley says, with some letters expressing the move as a "positive step for Merrill Lynch" and others denouncing the move based on personal and religious beliefs.

Crowley says Merrill is at the forefront of financial services firms in extending benefits to extended family members. JP Morgan and Bankers Trust offer same-sex coverage only, while Chase also offers benefits to extended family members, she claims.

According to Hollywood Supports, an Internet-based group that follows health coverage (www.hsupports.org), American Express, Charles Schwab, John Hancock, Aetna, Lincoln National, NationsBank, the Pacific Stock Exchange, Scudder Stevens & Clark and Wells Fargo are among other financial services firms that extend health benefits to domestic partners.

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