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06-12-2012 | Article

Divorced women fall through cracks in health coverage

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medwireNews: Approximately 115,000 American women lose their private health insurance every year during the months that follow a divorce, according to a University of Michigan study. Of those women, roughly 65,000 of them become uninsured and overall rates of health insurance coverage remain low for more than 2 years after a divorce.

The Journal of Health and Social Behavior study is one of only a few research efforts to understand the relationship between marital transitions and health insurance coverage.

"It is surprising that there has been a gap in researching this problem with the health care system, [which] has also been absent from public discussion thus far," explained primary author, Bridget Lavelle, to medwireNews.

Lavelle noted that this lack of acknowledgement is evident in a White House website summary of how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will help secure coverage for women, which only mentions the plight of those who lose their jobs, switch jobs, move, or become sick.

"These are important transitions that jeopardize health insurance coverage," she said. "But the omission of divorce is really striking. There are about a million divorces in the US every year. This is something that's affecting a lot of women."

Lavelle and Pamela Smock (also from the University of Michigan) found that moderate-income women were most at risk for losing their private coverage after divorce, having just enough earnings to disqualify them from public insurance programs. Lavelle expects ACA provisions beginning in 2014 will likely assist many of these women.

Marital disruption can affect health in numerous ways. Long-term stress - known to increase risk of heart disease, depression, and obesity - can be brought on by financial uncertainty and vulnerability that often comes with divorce. This is especially true for women, who suffer greater declines in income than their spouses after a divorce.

A study in Health Affairs found that uninsured women often worry about getting sick, their ability to see a doctor, afford drugs, or pay medical bills - a concern supported by an Institute for Medicine finding that uninsured adults experience significantly worse health outcomes and die at a younger age.

One quarter of all adult women's healthcare coverage in the USA is dependent on a benefits package of a spouse or other family member, which is significantly higher than for men, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

By Peter Sergo, medwireNews Reporter