Health care reform reduces US divorces?

family law

One of President Obama’s signature pieces of legislation could be responsible for a drop in the number of divorces.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), dubbed ‘Obamacare’ by its detractors, has apparently contributed to a reduction in what is known as ‘medical divorce’.

When someone in the United States develops a serious illness, treatment can be very costly. If a person in that situation began struggling to pay their medical bills they could seek help from Medicaid, a government-run programme for people with limited resources. For married people, however, this could sometimes be a problem. In order for couples to qualify they could not hold assets above a certain level. These ‘asset limits’ meant married couples would often have to spend their joint savings to pay for treatment before they were eligible to receive Medicaid, leaving very little left for their retirement or to leave their children. To circumvent this problem many married couples would divorce so the spouse who required treatment would officially qualify for help on their own.

Once the ACA was passed in 2010, states were able to expand the reach of Medicaid and eliminate the asset limits in order to help more people. This part of the Act was made optional by a US Supreme Court ruling and as a result, 20 states elected not to expand the programme.

Economists from the University of Kansas wanted to know how this affected the phenomenon of medical divorce. To do so, they analysed the divorce rates of 20 states which adopted the Medicaid expansion and compared them with the 20 which did not. Their research focused on couples between the ages of 50 and 64, as they were more likely to have “substantial assets”.

Overall, they found that the states which took advantage of the expansion had lower divorce rates. Once the ACA was enacted the rates in these places actually went down by almost six per cent among the age group in question.

However the authors did point out that their results were an example of correlation, when two trends happen at the same time but not always as a result of one another. With that in mind there could be other factors responsible for the fall in the divorce rate such as the national drop in the unemployment rate over the same time period.

The study was published by the Social Science Research Network.

Photo of President Obama courtesy of BU Interactive News via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.

Stowe Family Law Web Team

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