In a major victory for gay rights, the Supreme Court last month struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law that had limited recognition of marriage to one between a man and a woman. This judicial move may herald major changes for the gay community with regard to health care access and cost.
The decision in the case of United States v. Windsor found Part 3 of DOMA to be unconstitutional because it denies legally married same-sex couples equal treatment under federal law. One of the clear effects of this ruling is that same-sex spouses of federal employees can receive coverage through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program for civilians and the Tricare program for military personnel.
Dr. Ardis D. Hoven, the president of the American Medical Association told CBSNews.com that overturning the DOMA will help eliminate health disparities in same-sex households by ensuring that they are afforded the same health care rights as others.
DOMA had barred federal recognition of same-sex marriages for the purpose of determining spousal benefits for programs such as Social Security survivors' benefits and government employee health insurance and in other areas such as immigration status and joint tax filing. Now, all federal spousal benefits, including those under Medicare and Medicaid will be available.
The ruling also means that children and spouses of same-sex couples can receive survivor benefits. As a result, in states where same-sex marriage is legal, if a non-biological parent in a same-sex couple passes away, the couple's child is now eligible for Social Security survivor benefits. Gay spouses will also now qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act, which grants employees time off to care for an ill spouse or child.
The ruling also means that when a gay married couple obtains health care through one of the partners' jobs, the employer contribution is excluded from income tax, as it is for other married couples.
On the other hand, the Court's decision also has negative implications for same-sex spouses who enroll in insurance plans through the new insurance exchanges created by Obamacare. The subsidies that are available for low and moderate income families will be based on a same-sex couple's joint income, rather than the income of each spouse individually. This could disqualify some same-sex spouses from receiving this financial assistance.
It is important to bear in mind that the Supreme Court's decision affects only same-sex marriages and does not apply to civil unions. This distinction is significant because currently same-sex couples can legally marry in only 13 states and the District of Columbia (including nearby Delaware and New York).
It is also still unclear how the decision will affect couples who are legally married in one state but living in another where same-sex marriage isn't recognized. Although President Obama has stated that he believes couples married in one state should be treated as married in all 50 states, it is yet to be seen how states that are resistant to same-sex marriage will respond to the changes.
The court's decision will clearly require some legal adjustments, but it will eventually transform the landscape for health care in the LGBT community.