Each year, almost 115,000 women in the U.S. will lose their health insurance in the months following a divorce, finds a study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Nearly 65,000 of these women will become uninsured for the long-term. Losing health insurance adds to the financial and emotional stress women frequently experience after a divorce.
Previous research shows that married women have better health, said lead study author Bridget Lavelle, a doctoral candidate in public policy and sociology at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
"Having health insurance is one of a range of contributing factors," Lavelle added. "Married people also have higher incomes, more social support and better health behaviors than unmarried people, which also play a role. But the possibility that this specific resource of health insurance may be an important contributing factor has received surprisingly little attention in the body of research that explores why married people really are healthier."
Women often experience fairly substantial losses of economic resources after divorce, more so than their spouses—so many women get pushed below the poverty line, Lavelle said.
About a quarter of U.S. women below age 65 receive dependent health insurance that may cease after a divorce—a rate higher than for men.
The study utilized data from 1,442 women in the Survey of Income and Program Participation. Lavelle collaborated with UM colleague and sociology professor Pamela J. Smock to focus attention on this topic they felt was "off-the-radar" in both academic literature and policy.
"This is a very important and path-breaking study", said Deborah Carr, Ph.D. and professor of sociology at Rutgers University. "Researchers have long known that divorce has negative consequences for women's (and men's) physical and mental health, and that women often experience a major drop in household earnings and quality of life following divorce. However, no study until now has documented the far-reaching and persistent effect of divorce on women's health insurance coverage."
Newly-divorced women face a host of challenges, including caring for their children, juggling work and family, and struggling to make ends meet, Carr said.
"If women fail to receive timely and appropriate health checkups, treatments, and care, they are at risk of even more serious health declines and their ability to carry out their roles as worker and parent may also suffer," she said.
Study results may be well-timed. "We hope our work will make policymakers aware that a system with de facto linkage between marital status and health insurance will have unintentional and adverse consequences," Lavelle said.
"Impoverished divorced women whose very low incomes qualify them for Medicaid may have some access to care, but lower middle-class women with modest incomes may not qualify for Medicaid benefits, despite their precarious financial statuses," concluded Carr. "The long-term consequences for their physical and emotional health are potentially dire."
Journal of Health and Social Behavior