Illinois State University has announced that it will offer health care benefits to the domestic partners of its employees, both gay and straight. The ISU program goes a step further than that of the state and the University of Illinois, which extended such benefits to only gay or lesbian domestic partners, excluding unmarried heterosexual couples. ISU officials said offering the program to both same- and opposite-sex partners is a matter of diversity and fairness. "It's a right we'd like to see extended to all people," said Dave Bentlin, office manager in ISU's Division of University Advancement. "We don't think
[heterosexual couples] should be penalized because they don't choose to get married."
Several private educational institutions in the state, including Northwestern and the University of Chicago, offer benefits to their employees' domestic partners. The ISU benefits program takes effect immediately. Peter Lebarber, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, said ISU's reimbursement program chips away at the institution of marriage. "It's another incentive against marriage. In our view, that's the last thing we need in society," Lebarber said. "Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for homosexual partnerships or heterosexuals living together who aren't married."
ISU spokesman Jay Groves said the reimbursement program for health care, vision, and dental coverage is not funded by taxpayer money. The school expects to spend less than $40,000 on the program. Under the program, ISU will reimburse employees for what they pay to purchase health coverage for their domestic partners up to the amount the employee would have paid for dependent coverage under the university's health plan, Groves said. UI spokesman Thomas Hardy said the school doesn't extend its health care reimbursement program to unmarried straight couples because they have the option of getting married, whereas same-sex couples do not. Under a contract ratified last month by the state's 37,000 employees, Illinois joined 10 other states that offer health insurance to same-sex partners
but not unmarried straight couples.