When the state cut health benefits for domestic partners last year, UA President Robert Shelton said university officials should come up with a way to help them buy separate coverage.

They did.

The University of Arizona is now offering special medical-, dental- and vision-insurance plans for employees with domestic partners. The plans don't use any state money but have similar premiums.

The new state law, which changes partner benefits by redefining the word "dependent," was signed in September 2009 and will take effect on Oct. 1. The new UA plans will kick in on that day, too. A dependent will then be a "spouse under the laws of this state," which excludes unmarried domestic partners.

The UA wanted to cover both gay and heterosexual relationships, because "in order for us to be competitive, to be able to attract talented people, we need to be able to offer benefits that other employers are offering," said Allison Vaillancourt, UA vice president for human resources.

The city of Tucson, Pima County and other major employers offer benefits for domestic partners.

Liz Sawyer, a UA staff member in the English department, called the new plans wonderful.

Sawyer is a spokeswoman for OUTReach, a campus group that has lobbied for domestic-partner benefits at the UA for many years.

"It's really nice to know that even though the state is not committed to equality, our university is. This administration has been so supportive of the LGTB (lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual) community. We're just all breathing a huge sigh of relief," she said.

About 20 people left the university over frustration with the new law, Vaillancourt said. And in some cases, job offers were rejected or reconsidered, she said.

"It was devastating," she said.

At the time the law change was announced, the state coverage applied to 40 same-sex partners and 130 opposite-sex partners of university employees.

Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University are working on their own partner-benefits solutions.

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 807-8012.