The Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) filed a suit in federal court this week seeking to reverse an arbitration award that denied health insurance benefits to the same-sex spouse of a registered nurse employed by Merrimack Valley Hospital.

Maria Ciulla a resident of Methuen and the nurse who was denied health coverage for her spouse, stated the essence of the case in a letter she wrote to Merrimack Valley Hospital CEO Robert Allen following the arbitration ruling.

She said: “This is outright sexual orientation discrimination. I am an registered nurse and as RN’s we care for and treat people from all walks of life. Our patients vary in race, colour, religion, mental status, educational level, financial level, and yes, even people with different sexual orientation. I treat people as I would like to be treated, as an equal. I am only asking to be treated as an equal.”

The lawsuit, which was filed in US District Court in Boston, claims the arbitrator and the hospital violated specific union contract language that forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation. It also charges that the arbitrator overstepped his authority in deciding the case, deliberately ignoring the facts and arguments presented in the case by both parties, while inappropriately reaching into federal statutes, especially the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) to justify the hospital’s voluntary decision to deny equal health benefits to its gay and lesbian employees.

The MNA is being supported in the lawsuit by Gay Lesbian Advocates Defenders (GLAD).

Roland Goff, the MNA’s director of labour relations said: “This is a blatant case of discrimination by an overzealous, out-of-state employer who purposefully chose to discriminate against their gay and lesbian employees when they could have treated all spouses equally and complied with their contractual obligation not to discriminate.”

Ciulla, a nurse who works on a telemetry unit at Merrimack Valley Hospital, was lawfully married to her same-sex partner last October after the landmark Goodridge decision was issued by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Shortly thereafter, she attempted to enrol her new spouse in the hospital’s health insurance plan but was denied enrolment. She then filed a grievance under her union contract, which clearly stipulates that the hospital cannot discriminate against employees based on sexual orientation.

The case was brought to arbitration, where it was heard by Arnold Marrow, an administrative law judge with the American Arbitration Association. At the hearings, Martee Harris, a corporate vice president for human resources for Essent Healthcare based in Tennessee, testified that she had approached BlueCross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts (BC/BS), the administrator of Essent’s self-insured health plan, to have them change the definition of spouse under the Merrimack Valley Hospital plan to include all legal spouses except the legal spouses of gay and lesbian employees. BC/BS had previously changed the plan’s definition of spouse after the Goodridge decision to clarify that the legal spouses of all employees should be eligible for health care coverage regardless of whether they are of the same sex or different sex.

The hospital contended that the denial of coverage was lawful under the union contract because the contract itself did not specify eligibility for same-sex couples, even though it does expressly forbid the hospital from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“Without telling us they were doing it, and with the authority of officials living and working outside of our state, Essent went out of its way to alter a right granted to our members now depriving them of equal access to health care benefits simply because the affected members are gay men and lesbians,” Mr Goff said. “This was a deliberate and unseemly attempt to discriminate against gay and lesbian members of the bargaining unit.”

In explaining his decision to deny such benefits, the arbitrator wrote that he would not be relying on the union contract language granting him authority to decide the matter nor would he rely on any argument by the employer. Instead, Mr Marrow wrote, “I find it necessary to go outside the language of the collective bargaining agreement ? to construe the Act [DOMA], as well as the potential impact of other aspects of federal law (ERISA) in order to properly decide the issue before me.”

Having disregarded the legal arguments presented by the parties, he took it upon himself to manufacture a rationale that would allow the hospital to hide behind federal law as an excuse to discriminate where the truth is that the hospital has the discretion under federal law to treat all employees and their spouses equally.

“The arbitrator clearly violated his authority and did not ‘construe’ the contract to reach his decision,” Mr Goff said. “And the fact that he did so as a means of depriving someone of their lawful rights is appalling.”

Chris Murphy, a spokesman for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts, who administer Essent’s account, declined to comment on the lawsuit. He told the Associated Press that self-insured companies such as Essent, are covered by federal law which allows them to define marriage as between a man and a woman.