By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
In its first year recognizing civil unions, Hawaii has issued more than 700 licenses to couples.
As of Wednesday, the state Department of Health had registered a total of 719 civil unions, said Janice Okubo, the department’s public information officer.
While breakdowns of recent numbers were not available island by island, the Department of Health registered a total of 65 civil unions on the Big Island between January and August of this year. That represented 12 percent of the civil unions performed in the state.
The civil unions, which are intended to provide same-sex partners with the same rights and privileges as married, heterosexual couples, became law on Jan. 1, after being approved by the Legislature in 2011.
Hawaii Island saw a surge of applicants in the law’s first few months, with 15 civil unions being entered into in January and 14 being issued in February. Then, the applications slowed, averaging about six a month since then.
Between January and August, Honolulu registered 270 civil unions, or 52 percent of those issued in the state. Kauai saw 67 (13 percent), and Maui registered 119 (23 percent).
In the months leading up to and following the law going into effect, many gay and lesbian couples said they intended to hold off on applying for a civil union until a number of issues had been squared away. The wording of the civil union legislation left some couples worrying that they might be affected by a gap that could have occurred in the event that a couple with reciprocal beneficiary relationship — the closest thing to a civil union offered by the state until that time — applied for a civil union.
As the law was written, couples would have had to end their reciprocal beneficiary partnerships before applying for a civil union, and then wait for weeks for the paperwork to go through, leaving them without their rights in the event they needed to visit their loved one in the hospital,= and other possible circumstances.
In July of this year, Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed into law a “Fix It” bill that amended the language, ensuring that a couple’s reciprocal beneficiary status is immediately annulled once their civil union becomes official. The amendment was retroactive, meaning that any civil unions entered into after Jan. 1 would be covered.
Since the civil union law went into effect, the Department of Health says the vital records department has seen a boost in efficiency, thanks to an accompanying upgrade to its licensing procedures.
“Marriage agents have been telling us that the electronic process has really helped to streamline the whole application process,” Okubo said Wednesday. “Now, people can go online, and fill out an application for a civil union, or marriage, see an agent, and then everything’s ready to go.”
The whole process takes only a day or two for the online applications to be verified and registered, she said, as opposed to weeks, and even months, as was the case when the process was done by filling out printed applications by hand and mailing them.
“It’s really made a big difference,” Okubo said. “And considering we have roughly 20,000 marriages every year in Hawaii — we’re a popular location for weddings — the electronic process has really come in handy.”
Locations around the state, including Hilo, reported a few technical glitches here and there in the first few days of using the new system, she admitted, but overall civil unions haven’t had much of an impact on the work load or processes already in place at the Department of Health.
“It’s all gone pretty smoothly,” she said.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.