The three pitfalls of marrying for health insurance

First comes love, then comes health insurance?

Some people desperate for health insurance are taking the controversial step of marrying for it. It’s a proposal that’s gotten extra attention this year after a storyline on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” focused on a female doctor marrying a male patient (not her own) so he could qualify for health insurance and life-saving surgery.

“It’s very hard for some people to get and afford health insurance,” says Jennifer Jaff, an attorney who is executive director of Advocacy for Patients with Chronic lllness, based in Farmington, Conn. “When they can get on a plan as a dependent, it doesn’t matter if they have pre-existing conditions. They can get coverage as a dependent that they may not get individually.”

While walking down the aisle to walk away with health insurance may sound appealing, here are three potential snags:

health insurance marrying

1. It’s an ethical decision.

No one should marry just to gain health insurance, says Kathleen Stoll, director of health policies for Families USA, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on the availability of affordable health care. But if you’ve found someone you love -- and if one of you needs access to health insurance -- Stoll says that’s legitimate.

“It’s not going to work if you get married and don’t live together and don’t act like a married couple and you ever get caught,” Jaff says. “Equally, if that’s the only reason you’re getting married, someone could certainly argue that that amounts to fraud.”

2. A health insurance plan still may not cover you.

Not all policies provide dependent coverage. Of if someone wants to add family coverage to an individual policy, it could significantly increase the cost of insurance.

Stoll says some relief is available for individuals facing difficulty in obtaining affordable insurance in the form of new pre-existing condition plans set up under the federal care reform law.

3. The union isn’t over after the operation

Even if you think the worst – physically – is over after you've been covered by health insurance and undergone any urgently needed medical procedures, you can’t easily and quickly discard your marriage. The idea of having to marry for health insurance epitomizes the problems with the U.S. health care system, Jaff says. People shouldn’t have to alter their marital status to get health care coverage, she says.

“If they marry for that reason, they’re going to be married, and all of the other consequences of being married are going to apply,” Jaff says.

Those consequences could include extra tax burdens, power-of-attorney issues and skirmishes among surviving children if one of the spouses were to die.

Saying 'I do' to health insurance

Jaff and others know of newlyweds who say obtaining health insurance was a major factor in the decision to head to the altar. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that 7 percent of more than 2,000 adults surveyed in 2008 answered “yes” when asked whether they or anyone in their household got married in the previous year mainly for health care benefits.

health insurance marrying

Stoll, the Families USA executive, says: “We hear people say, 'We were thinking about getting married and we decided to move forward for a number of reasons, and one of those may be so that he or I can access health insurance coverage.'"

A wedding chapel officiant even told The New York Times that one in 10 couples cited health insurance as the main reason for getting married, either because of a job loss, illness or unplanned pregnancy.

Health insurance desperation

A few people go to great lengths to find love and health insurance. Terri Carlson, a divorced California woman with a rare genetic disease, created a website in 2010 (www.willmarryforhealthinsurance.com) to pursue both simultaneously.

Carlson says the thousands of the proposals she received (she hasn’t accepted any yet) showed that people thought marrying someone to give them health insurance was the “humane thing to do.” Carlson says she's seen people advertise on Craigslist that they’re offering health insurance to potential mates who are willing to take their hand in marriage.

Marrying for health insurance has been done secretly for years, Carlson says. She says her online campaign merely brought it to the public's attention.

“For me, it came out of a sense of desperation and worry for my own security and my own financial welfare,” says Carlson, who found a short-term solution by starting her own business and qualifying for health insurance. “Certainly, I wish I could be married tomorrow and not have to worry about it.”

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