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After DOMA ruling, same-sex couples encounter obstacles to benefits

  • Gordie Weisgerber, left, and her wife, Astrid Ortega leave the U.S. Social Security Administration office after applying for spousal benefits in Santa Rosa, California on Monday, July 15, 2013. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

A blockbuster U.S. Supreme Court ruling that last month gave married gay couples access to the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples quickly produced a deluge of developments as federal agencies raced to comply with the ruling.

But in the three weeks since the court struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, same-sex couples newly eligible for benefits are finding there are some limits to the momentum the ruling generated.

In some federal agencies, reaction to the ruling came promptly.

President Obama immediately directed the Department of Justice to work with other federal agencies to ensure the extension of spousal benefits to same-sex married couples was implemented "swiftly and smoothly" to comply with the high court decision.

The Department of Defense announced it would immediately provide the same benefits to all service members' spouses.

Federal immigration officials urged gay and lesbian husbands and wives of U.S. citizens to petition for previously prohibited spousal immigration visas.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management invited newly eligible federal employees to apply, mid-year, for spousal medical, life and retirement benefits.

Bob Holloway, a Sonoma resident and a park ranger for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, said he has received "a barrage" of email and memos instructing him and others in same-sex marriages how to apply for privileges now due them. He expected Tuesday to turn in the paperwork needed to extend coverage to his husband, Tom Laughlin.

"I'm so excited that, after 18 years of our marriage, that we're finally having the opportunity to share my benefit plan with him," Holloway said, referring to a commitment ceremony the two held nearly two decades ago, in advance of their 2008 wedding. "It can probably save us about $600 a month in what he's paying for private health insurance."

But two key federal agencies, the Veterans Administration and the Social Security Administration, are accepting claims but have yet to begin processing them. And it's unclear when any actual benefits might be doled out.

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