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New Report Shows Same-Sex Couples Experience Greater Health Disparities

July 16, 2013

By: Rick Mula, Task Force Holley Law Fellow

According to the National Healthcare Disparities Report (NHDR) released last month, individuals in same-sex couples face personal and structural obstacles that make it tougher for them to access high-quality health care than individuals in different-sex couples.

Since 2003, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), an operating division of the Department of Health and Human Services that supports research to help people make more informed decisions and improves the quality of health care services, has annually reported on progress and opportunities for reducing health care disparities. As mandated by Congress, the National Healthcare Disparities Report (NHDR) focuses on “prevailing disparities in health care delivery as it relates to racial factors and socioeconomic factors in priority populations” (42 U.S.C. 299a-1(a)(6)).

The latest report found that individuals with partners of the same sex are more likely than individuals in different-sex couples to be treated disrespectfully by staff and providers, perceive a threatening environment, or experience stigma associated with being a sexual minority.

Broad, structural barriers also contribute to the problem. Individuals in same-sex couples may experience difficulty obtaining health insurance because many employer-sponsored insurance plans do not recognize same-sex unions. And culturally competent providers are scarce.

The NHDR used data collected on same-sex couples in the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) from 1996 to 2007 to identify differences between same-sex couples and different-sex couples in access to healthcare. Unfortunately the MEPS did not distinguish transgender individuals, so the data does not shed light on the experiences of transgender individuals. The MEPS collected data on those in same-sex couples, but did not specifically identify transgender individuals for the purpose of further study. However, the key findings follow:

  • Individuals in same-sex couples were less likely than individuals in different-sex couples to report getting medical care when wanted for nonurgent care in the last 12 months (74.3% compared with 83.7%).
  • Individuals in same-sex couples were less likely than individuals in different-sex couples to report that it was easy to see a specialist in the last 12 months (62.2% compared with 76.6%).
  • Individuals in same-sex couples were more likely than individuals in different-sex couples to report a delay in getting necessary prescriptions (6.2% compared with 2.6%).
  • Individuals in same-sex couples were less likely than individuals in different-sex couples to report that their doctor spent enough time with them (80.4% compared with 86.7%).

The findings on individuals in same-sex couples make up just a small portion of the NHDR report, which can be read in full here.

Besides the findings listed above, the NHDR discovered that “racial and ethnic minorities and poor people often face more barriers to care and receive poorer quality of care when they can get it.”

The Task Force, along with our coalition partners, submitted comments to the MEPS – Insurance Component data collection tool last year. We recommended that various questionnaires should include opportunities for employers to indicate that they offer benefits for unmarried domestic partners and their dependent children. Unfortunately, the 2011 MEPS did not incorporate our recommendations.

The Task Force will continue to seek full and comprehensive data collection on the full range of issues that affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community because we know that we cannot begin to effectively address disparities until we have sufficiently identified those disparities.

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