Is Nebraska guilty of health insurance discrimination for African-American employees, and if so, how prevalent is the practice in other states. Or, is the state of Nebraska a unique case?
By Margery A. Beck - Associated Press.
The Nebraska Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case alleging that the state discriminated against its African-American employees by offering less health insurance coverage to state workers living in Lincoln and Omaha.
Longtime state employee Sandra Cartwright argues that in 2007 and 2008, the state offered plans with significantly less coverage to state employees living in a handful of zip codes in and around Omaha and Lincoln. According to her lawsuit, 96 percent of the state's estimated 450 African-American employees lived in those areas.
In 2009, the state stopped the practice, but has defended the differing plans as equivalent, saying that cost savings - not discrimination - led to the change. State attorneys also note that more than half of the state's employees live in those areas.
A Lancaster County District judge sided with the state last year and dismissed the lawsuit, but Cartwright appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Her attorney, Kathleen Neary, said Thursday that past U.S. Supreme Court decisions on employment practices affecting minority groups have found that courts must compare the percentages of groups adversely affected by the change and not raw numbers.
"In this case, 96 percent of all African-American employees were impacted, and only more than 50 percent of Caucasian employees were affected," she said. "We're talking about more than a 40 percent difference in the racial impact between African American and Caucasian employees."
The Nebraska Attorney General's Office, which is representing the state, didn't return a message seeking comment Thursday.
Julie Dake Abel, executive director for the state employee union, said her group, will closely watch the outcome of the appeal.
"It is a concern for us in as much as we believe that everybody should have what's fair as far as access to health insurance," she said. "We are going to have to watch to make sure that, if it's an unfavorable decision, that the state does not try and do something again that could disenfranchise some people."
Cartwright was a 19-year employee of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services before retiring in 2009.
Excluding employees at universities and state colleges, who have separate coverage, the state employed more than 19,000 people in the years cited in the lawsuit. About 65 percent of them lived in the Omaha and Lincoln zip codes at the heart of Cartwright's lawsuit. More than 90 percent of the state employees were Caucasian, while about 3 percent were African American.
The state maintains that the different plans were "substantially equal," and that the monthly costs of the plans for the Omaha and Lincoln zip codes were cheaper on a monthly basis. In court briefs, the Attorney General's Office also argues that Cartwright failed to prove the state healthcare plans discriminated against African Americans.
"The fact that 96 percent of African American employees live in the affected zones was not enough to establish a disparate impact, especially considering well over half of state employees also lived in the affected zip code area," Assistant Attorney General Stephanie Caldwell wrote in her brief. "Any perceived adverse impact affected ALL employees in those zip codes, not just African Americans."
Cartwright's lawsuit argues that she and other employees in the Omaha and Lincoln zip codes were substantially limited - compared to employees outside those zip codes - by the healthcare policies they were offered. That included smaller health provider networks, no coverage for out-of-state medical treatment, having to pay deductibles, and being paid less in benefits, the lawsuit said.
Cartwright said the change left her without coverage for mammograms and other preventative care tests, as well as insulin to treat her diabetes.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.
Reprinted with permission of USAonRace.com
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