Expert Commentary

Divorce and women’s loss of health insurance

2011 report from the University of Michigan's Population Studies Center on how divorce effects women's health insurance coverage.

Women in the United States are often financially vulnerable after divorce. At risk are material assets, liquid assets and insurance benefits.

A 2011 study from the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, “Divorce and Women’s Risk of Health Insurance Loss in the U.S.,” uses data from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation between 1996 and 2007 to track health insurance coverage for a nationally representative sample of women age 26 to 64. The study compares insurance levels pre- and post-divorce, and distinguishes between private insurance and public supports (Medicaid).

Key study findings include:

  • Among women who are insured prior to divorce, more than 16% became uninsured six months after divorce. The rate of health insurance for such women remains depressed for two years after divorce.
  • Overall, the “total loss of insurance coverage would have been greater if some women had not been able to switch from private coverage to public insurance programs. Six months after divorce, 10.3% of women hold public insurance coverage, compared to 5.6%” of women who are not divorced.
  • Lower-middle class women just above the poverty threshold for public insurance after divorce and women ages 50 to 64 are most at risk for insurance loss.  “Many women … after divorce [have] too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to purchase individual health insurance policies on the private market.” Non-white women are less likely to lose health insurance coverage, as they are more likely to already be covered by Medicaid.
  • A woman with a long-term, stable job will typically retain health insurance coverage post-divorce; a woman listed as a dependent on her husband’s policy, however, is four times more likely to lose her coverage, and she faces a “14% decrease in the overall probability of coverage.”
  • Analysis over time showed that more than “three-quarters of women who remain married are insured in every month observed (79%), compared to just over half of women who divorce (55%).”

The researchers summarize the implication of their study as follows: “First, it suggests that the consequences of divorce are more extensive than previously estimated. Second, while we are unable to definitively establish a causal relationship between divorce and health insurance loss, our methodological approach provides support for such a relationship…. Third, because loss of health insurance may have long-lasting health consequences, our results may help to explain documented long-term differences in physical health between married and divorced individuals.” The scholars also describe the existing health care system as “inadequate for a population in which multiple job and marital changes over the life course are not uncommon, and may well become increasingly common.”

Tags: poverty, divorce, inequality

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