Unmarried couples in Miami-Dade won the right to hospital and jail visitation on Tuesday, following an 8-4 vote by the County Commission, and county employees will be able to buy health coverage for their partners.
Couples will be able to register their partnerships with the county's Consumer Services Department by late August. The system is open to unmarried, nonrelated couples -- gay or straight -- who are at least 18 and live together.
''It's a matter of compassion, a matter of correcting an injustice, a matter of moving forward as a progressive county,'' said Commissioner Katy Sorenson.
County staff estimated 900 couples would file this year.
Those couples would have the same visitation rights as spouses in county healthcare facilities, jails, and juvenile detention centers. They would have the same rights as spouses to visit a partner's children and parents.
For county workers, the option to buy health insurance would extend to their domestic partner and that partner's children.
The legislation is hardly revolutionary, mirroring years-old policies in Broward and Palm Beach county governments, the Miami-Dade and Broward school districts, and some local municipalities. Couples who have a valid domestic partnership, civil union, or similar arrangement from another government would automatically receive the rights in Miami-Dade.
''It's a long time coming,'' said Commission Chairman Bruno Barreiro. ``I support this as a proud Republican.''
One opponent, Commissioner Joe Martinez, said advocates were dancing around the real issue.
''This is about same-sex partners, period,'' he said. ``It's not about domestic partners -- call it what it is.''
Its passage had been widely expected, especially after an alternative version sputtered in committee last week. It was co-sponsored by Barreiro, Audrey Edmonson, Carlos Gimenez, Sally Heyman, Barbara Jordan, and Sorenson. Dennis Moss and Rebeca Sosa also voted for it. Commissioner Javier Souto was absent.
Opponents, including a coalition of religious leaders, fought the proposal on moral and financial fronts. They said the county cannot afford the $2,200 it costs to subsidize insurance for each partner, the same it already spends on spouses.
The alternative plan would have covered both domestic partners and live-in relatives -- and therefore required more county subsidy. Neither side could find any government that offers such a plan, and insurance experts said that lack of real-world experience would make it hard to determine the right price for premiums.
The alternative, sponsored by Martinez, José ''Pepe'' Diaz, Natacha Seijas, and Dorrin Rolle, is not dead -- under direction from the commission. Mayor Carlos Alvarez's administration is studying it further.
Diaz -- who called the winning proposal ''reverse discrimination'' -- said the Christian Coalition's support for a plan that includes domestic partners was unprecedented. But the commission rejected his requests to add relatives to the plan or put off a vote until June.
''Once this passes, the other one will fail to pass,'' Martinez said of the domestic-partner policy. "Everyone who's voting for it now will say it's no longer about compassion, it's about money.''
In a separate vote, the commission agreed to help Blue Cross and Blue Shield market a low-cost health insurance plan open to any county resident. The county would neither subsidize the plan nor profit from it, but required the insurance company to offer certain prices and coverage in exchange for its support.
The county will monitor who enrolls in the three-year pilot project and what impact it has on Miami-Dade's large uninsured population. The plan still needs to clear several regulatory hurdles and enrollment probably would not begin until early 2009.
''If it works the way I think it will, it could go nationwide,'' Martinez said.