Financial insecurity keeps many couples from seeking divorce long after they lose hope for their relationship. They simply cannot afford to go it alone. Because the cost of health care has risen steeply in recent years, their coverage often weighs heavily on such decisions.
A recent article on the Washington Times Communities website suggests that the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare, may lower this barrier to divorce if it succeeds in making health care more affordable.
A study by the University of Michigan in 2012 found that each year, some 115,000 American women lose their health insurance after they get divorced. Many of them are not employed outside the home, work part-time, or work for companies that do not offer insurance. Some are eligible for COBRA benefits, but of those, many cannot afford the premiums while living alone.
Concerns over health insurance are especially prevalent among couples divorcing after age 50, cases sometimes called “gray divorces.” If individuals are too young to qualify for Medicare, they may find themselves priced out of insurance markets. An unknown number of couples remain married until age 65 for this very reason.
Individuals with pre-existing conditions who are covered under their spouse’s plan also face strong incentives to remain legally married.
Beginning January 1 2014, the ACA could change this dynamic for many people. Presumably, some number of people will be able to afford health insurance on their own where previously they could not. If the program is a success, and large numbers of couples find themselves in this situation, the divorce rate could rise sharply, especially among the unemployed or underemployed, seniors and those with pre-existing conditions.
The ACA could also bring about changes in spousal support. The cost of health insurance affects the need for spousal support, with one party often having to pay enough for adequate coverage. Any change in the overall insurance market could affect how much support is awarded in some cases.
Accounting for these changes will likely be highly contentious in several ways. Opposing parties might disagree over whether spousal support should provide for excellent (“platinum”) insurance, or only basic (“bronze”) plans. If the spouse receiving support is eligible for a federal insurance subsidy, the other party may argue that that should lower the support awarded. Likewise, the expansion of Medicaid in some states will make more individuals eligible—another possible argument for lower support.
Among those couples who find themselves better able to afford health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, some who might otherwise have remained married may opt for divorce. The specific effects of such a change will take time to recognize and understand.