Thousands of women lose health coverage post-divorce every year, says study

Nov. 13, 2012, 3:56 p.m.

Divorce papers. Every year, more than 60,000 women lose all health coverage within six months of having a divorce. (Sharyn Morrow/Flickr Creative Commons)

Every year, around 115,000 women see their divorce claim their private health coverage as collateral damage, often leaving them uninsured for years.

So says a new study from the University of Michigan appearing in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, which highlighted the "substantial" impact the nation's approximately 1 million divorces a year have on women's access to health care.

Donald Conviser, a family law specialist based in Woodland Hills, said that loss of insurance is due to restrictions in policy provisions. Employer-based insurance, for example, extends to both the employee and the members of his or her family, but divorce changes that.

"Once that spouse is no longer a family member," said Conviser, "they can't be covered under the terms of that policy."

The same is often true with private insurance plans.

"On a private policy, you have to look at the language of the policy to see if it only covers family members of the primary insured," said Conviser. If it does, divorce eliminates the eligibility of the spouse who's not the primary insured.

The University of Michigan study also found that of those 115,000 women who lose their private insurance, about 65,000 lose all health insurance in the months following divorce. That's in part because, despite the financial hardship incurred by divorced women, they still don't quite qualify for Medicaid or similar programs.

Researchers also found that 25 percent of women who relied on their ex-spouse's employer-based insurance are uninsured six months after the divorce papers are signed. But the numbers indicate that, despite losing a health insurance plan due to divorce, some women are able to recover and regain coverage relatively quickly. Many have their own employer-based coverage, although they're not immune from a loss of insurance either – the divorce proceedings' cost may reduce their ability to meet ordinary expenses, including their share of employer-based health insurance.

In this regard, it's middle-class divorcées who are hardest-hit.

"Women in moderate-income families face the greatest loss of insurance coverage," said Bridget Lavelle, the study's lead author, in a statement. "They are more likely than higher-income women to lose private coverage and they have less access than lower-income women to public safety-net insurance programs."

South Los Angeles may have more access to safety-net programs precisely because of the prevalence of low-income residents: Nearly 70 percent of households in the area make $40,000 or less every year, and more than 86,000 homes have an annual income of $20,000 or less.

The southside doesn't have a remarkably large population of divorced women relative to the rest of the county, but there are a few outliers. In Gramercy Park, 16.3 percent of people older than 15 are divorced women; the same is true of 16 percent of 15-and-olders in Manchester Square. Those two neighborhoods round out the county's top 10 places with the highest proportion of divorced women.

The study's authors found that full-time work and education can be important buffers against losing insurance post-divorce. But those protections are hardly applicable to all women.

Conviser did mention a few workarounds, though. After a divorce has gone through, employers will typically offer COBRA Continuation Health Coverage to the former spouses of their employees, as dictated by law.

"It's kind of expensive and it's only good for 18 months, but it's a good alternative to no coverage," said Conviser.

Couples seeking to split could also opt to become legally separated, rather than divorced. In that case, the two spouses would technically remain married, and thus still family members.

"Some people that go through what would otherwise be a divorce agree to get a legal separation," said Conviser, so that under a health insurance policy's provisions, both spouses can continue to get coverage under one plan.

A judge could also get involved. But don't count on this – Conviser said he's only seen it happen twice in his more than 40 years of practice. In this scenario, a judge grants the divorce, but does not "enter a judgment dissolving the marital status." Chalk it up to legal resourcefulness.

"Some judges have that compassion to be creative in the way they deal with it," he said. Until the divorce judgment is entered, the ex-spouse can continue to get health insurance coverage from the policy of her or his ex-spouse's insurance plan. But this hardly a reliable route.

"It's unusual for a judge to order it," said Conviser.

The study's authors noted that the Affordable Care Act has provisions that may "substantially" help the women their research focused on.

Photo by Sharyn Morrow via Flickr Creative Commons.

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