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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Same-Sex Couples Celebrate New Marriage and Healthcare Rights


The Supreme Court of the United States has been awfully busy lately—after last week’s landmark
rulings to uphold the Affordable Care Act and legalizing same-sex marriage, SCOTUS is certainly living up to its name. And while these decisions have massive implications in completely different realms of the American social and political landscape, they both improve the future of healthcare for same-sex couples. After facing decades of coverage ineligibility and discriminatory practices, achieving marriage equality means that same-sex couples will finally receive equitable treatment in a number of different areas of the healthcare arena.

New Options for Enrollment and Coverage

Because same-sex marriage is now recognized under federal law, LGBT couples are entitled to utilize insurance enrollment and coverage options designated for married spouses. One such opportunity now available to same-sex couples is the special enrollment period. Newly married same-sex spouses previously needed to wait to apply for coverage until the open enrollment period but these couples are now eligible to apply for coverage within 60 days of their union. These special enrollment periods are available to applicants who have recently experienced a major life event, a category which now incorporates same-sex marriages in light of the Supreme Court ruling.

Same-sex partners across the nation are now eligible to receive coverage under their spouse’s employer. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that less than half of employers offer insurance to non-married same-sex couples. Now that same-sex marriages are recognized under federal law, married same-sex couples across the nation will be able to access the same coverage benefits as heterosexual couples.  Although coverage for same-sex spouses was previously available through many insurance providers, same-sex couples will now have equal opportunity to access these benefits.

Spousal Rights

Friday’s Supreme Court decision also marks a huge step towards equal rights for same-sex spouses in healthcare settings. Couples who were previously denied basic spousal rights such as default power of attorney will be entitled to the same privileges as heterosexual couples in healthcare settings.

Although this may seem like a small victory to couples that have faced this type of discrimination, this decision marks a giant leap forward in the fight for equality. Take the story of LGBT rights activist Janice Langbehn: while vacationing with their family in Florida in 2009, Janice’s partner of 18 years Lisa Marie Pond suddenly collapsed and was rushed to a local trauma center. Because they were not Lisa’s blood relatives, Janice and their three adopted children were not allowed to see Lisa and were in the waiting room while she received treatment. Although Janice had power of attorney and the documentation was faxed to the hospital within an hour of Lisa’s arrival, it was too late: Lisa had suffered a brain aneurysm and slipped into a coma, and died without her partner or her children by her side.

Unfortunately, Lisa and Janice’s story is not unique—hundreds of same-sex couples have similar heart-wrenching stories of being denied basic spousal rights in hospitals and other healthcare systems. This landmark ruling will hopefully put an end to these discriminatory practices and allow same-sex couples the same fundamental rights to which all married couples are entitled.

An End to Discrimination

The recent ruling will hopefully mark an end to the prejudicial practices often employed by hospitals and healthcare facilities in serving same-sex couples and their families. As illustrated by Lisa and Janice’s story, unequal treatment of same-sex couples has been an unfortunate part of our nation’s healthcare history. These practices will hopefully be left in the past with this monumental decision.

Although Illinois was ahead of the curve in officially recognizing same-sex marriage, our statewide healthcare institutions have not all been sensitive to the specific care needs of LGBT patients. In an effort to hold healthcare organization accountable for their policies and practices for serving LGBT communities, the Human Rights Campaign launched their Healthcare Equality Index (HEI), which evaluates the equitable treatment of LGBT patients in healthcare settings based on the presence of four criteria: providing staff training in LGBT patient-centered care, equal visitation rights for LGBT patients and their visitors and written patient and employment non-discrimination policies. Although 16 Illinois hospitals and healthcare systems ranked among the 427 national leaders in LGBT healthcare equality, 12 of the 50 Illinois facilities surveyed in 2014 failed to meet the majority of equality criteria.

Despite this, equitable healthcare treatment for the LGBT community on a national scale is closer now than ever before. The 2014 HEI survey found that 84% of the hospitals met all four criteria for LGBT patient-centered care. This is a 101% increase in the number of healthcare systems designated as national leaders in promoting LGBT equality in 2013.

The Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage symbolizes a new era of equality, while the upholding of the Affordable Care Act marks a huge stride towards equal healthcare for same-sex couples nationwide. Now that the federal government has done its part in recognizing same-sex marriage, it’s up to healthcare systems across the nation to follow suit and ensure that their practices promote equitable treatment for LGBT patients and their families.

Dena Balk
Policy Intern
Health & Disability Advocates

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