Gay couples find uneven access to health insurance

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 27, 2014 at 2:02 pm •  Published: March 27, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Nearly every day for three months, Carl Bechdel had to make calls or send emails to try to get family insurance coverage for his husband and himself under President Barack Obama's landmark health law.

The Harrisburg, Pa., couple had sent an insurer their application and a month's premium in early December but heard nothing. Weeks later, they were told their application was not processed because Pennsylvania doesn't recognize same-sex marriage. So Bechdel pushed back, repeatedly explaining their predicament in phone calls and emails. Finally, they got a call and apology from the president of the insurance company last month, plus a family plan that started in March.

"It was never a matter of price. It was a matter of respect," said Bechdel, a 60-year-old retired attorney who married Dan Miller in 2012 in Washington, D.C.

For gay couples, access to family insurance plans under the law is not guaranteed this year, and their options run the gamut, mirroring in part the patchwork of state laws governing same-sex marriage that have changed rapidly in recent years.S

In Iowa, where gay marriage is legal, insurers selling plans in the marketplace created under the law offer policies to gay couples and families. But the major company in Tennessee's marketplace does not offer coverage at all to same-sex couples. Policies vary by insurer in Florida. And in Ohio, a couple sued for access to family insurance plans.

The federal government has belatedly sought to solve the inconsistencies, telling insurers this month that if they offer spousal coverage to heterosexual couples, they must provide that benefit to legally married, same-sex couples. But that doesn't become a requirement until next year, and doesn't address coverage for couples in civil unions and domestic partnerships.

In the meantime, the administration has encouraged companies to comply with the new policy voluntarily. Federal regulations do not require insurers to offer any family policies. And when companies do, they have some flexibility in how they define family members.

In Aberdeen, N.C., Thomas Hafke, 30, went online in December and bought a family plan for his husband and himself from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.

But the Chapel Hill-based company then canceled family coverage it sold to Hafke and about 20 other same-sex couples through the marketplace because of contract phrasing that defined "spouse" as "opposite sex."

"It felt like legalized discrimination," said Hafke, a server, who married 32-year-old Chad Higby in Washington, D.C., last fall.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield reversed course in January, saying it would offer the coverage to same-sex married couples and domestic partners.

"It was very important for these people to be able to purchase family coverage," said Michelle Douglas, a Blue Cross and Blue Shield spokeswoman. "In recognition of that, the company made the decision to make that coverage available."

Knowing that a partner can get coverage is one of the more effective messages in getting those in the LGBT community to enroll in a plan under the law, said Katie Keith, a researcher at Trimpa Group, a consulting firm that works with gay rights advocates.