Forced to divorce: Americans with disabilities must pick marriage or health care
Happy gay couple posing on yellow background

Susan approached her husband, heart thumping, as he sat in their living room. Days earlier, on Valentine’s Day, she had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Now, her world was about to further unravel. Susan mustered up all her courage and told her husband that they needed to divorce.

Her husband worked as a roofer and earned $12 an hour. His seasonal income fluctuations left Susan hovering near the Medicaid eligibility cap, which came out to around $20,600 annually at the time, in 2007. She already had briefly lost coverage during their marriage because her eligibility was based on household income. The cancer diagnosis was the tipping point. Susan’s husband had recently switched companies and earned a pay increase to $14 an hour. Warmer spring months would bring additional construction work. But more income wasn’t necessarily good news. Instead, it surfaced the nagging anxiety that Susan could lose Medicaid eligibility again, just when her medical bills were about to skyrocket.

Divorce, they decided, would eliminate the month-to-month possibility of losing coverage — and the fear that came with it.

[C]ouples with disabilities face the added burden of complex regulations that critics say are out of step with the times. Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federal program meant for Americans with disabilities with limited resources or over age 65, is only available to couples with $3,000 or less in assets. This cap has remained in place since 1989 — although the equivalent of $3,000 then would be more than $6,000 in 2019. And for a couple with disabilities, monthly SSI cash benefits are reduced by 25 percent upon marriage to account for the efficiency of shared expenses like housing, according to the Office of the Chief Actuary.

Following same-sex marriage legalization in 2015, Rabia Belt, a legal historian at Stanford Law School, called marriage for people with disabilities “the last marriage equality frontier.” Four years later, those regulatory barriers still haven’t been framed as a civil rights issue, says Dom Evans, a filmmaker, public speaker and activist who is multiply disabled and transgender.

For others, religion can add another layer of complexity. When Leila Ahmouda, who has cerebral palsy, first started getting SSI checks at the age of 22, she wasn’t aware she could lose those benefits if she got married, she says. She must choose between her faith and the disability benefits she needs. “As a Muslim woman, I cannot live with a man unless I am actually legally married to him,” she says. Ahmouda would choose to drop SSI benefits if she found someone she wanted to marry, she says.

Read more on Ozy.

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