President Obama’s landmark health care reform includes multiple provisions with significant positive implications for women, including putting an end to discriminatory gender-based insurance costs and ensuring affordable access to contraceptive services and maternity care. But Obamacare could also have another unexpected effect on women’s lives: helping ensure they don’t have to rely on a spouse for their health coverage, or worry about losing that coverage after a change in their marital status.
According to a new study from the University of Michigan, about 115,000 American women lose their private insurance coverage following a divorce each year, and 65,000 of those women remain uninsured because they don’t have any way to access health care without a spouse. Women are much more likely than men to be covered as a dependent — nearly a quarter of women under 65 years old were dependents last year, versus just 14 percent of men in the same age group — because they continue to be less likely to be insured through their jobs, partly because they tend to be in fields that don’t offer comprehensive benefits. Men are still more likely to have jobs that offer better insurance packages, and the Michigan study suggests that’s one reason why women often choose to access health insurance through their husbands’ plans.
Once those women get divorced, however, they lose the ability to access coverage as a dependent, and they often can’t afford the high costs of private insurance on their own. And rather than just a temporary gap in coverage immediately following a divorce, researchers observed that the rates of insurance coverage for divorced women remained depressed for more than two years after their splits occurred. “Insurance loss may compound the economic losses women experience after divorce and contribute to as well as compound previously documented health declines following divorce,” researchers warned.
This study builds on previous research that has already drawn a link between marital status and uninsurance rates. Unmarried women are estimated to be between 1.5 and 2 times more likely to be uninsured than the women who have a legal spouse — and even when unmarried women are insured, they are more likely to rely on public insurance programs like Medicaid. In fact, women make up 68 percent of the recipients in the Medicaid program.
But thanks to Obamacare, women may not have to keep relying on insurance plans that are only available through their husbands — something that will help women who choose to remain unmarried, women who seek a divorce, and LGBT women who live in states where they cannot legally marry. By requiring that all employers provide their workers with insurance, preventing insurance providers from charging women more than men for the same medical care, and expanding the eligibility levels for the Medicaid program, the health reform law actually represents a step toward ensuring that women’s ability to have insurance isn’t impacted by women’s ability to get married.