HHS Offers Benefits, Joint Placement to Married LGBT Seniors on Medicare

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com August 29 2013 12:21 PM ET

The federal Department of Health and Human Services announced today that legally married same-sex couples on Medicare will be eligible for equal benefits and joint placement in nursing homes around the country. 

In the wake of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in June striking down a key section of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius said today's announcement is just the first in a series of changes forthcoming in how the department deals with married same-sex couples. 

"Today, Medicare is ensuring that all beneficiaries will have equal access to coverage in a nursing home where their spouse lives, regardless of their sexual orientation," said Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services administrator Marilyn Tavenner in a statement. "Prior to this, a beneficiary in a same-sex marriage enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan did not have equal access to such coverage and, as a result, could have faced time away from his or her spouse or higher costs because of the way that marriage was defined for this purpose."

Medicare Advantage recipients are currently entitled to long-term care in a nursing home or skilled nursing facility, provided they meet the predetermined requirements and that Medicare agrees to make payments to the facility. But because the government-run health care program didn't recognize the marriages of same-sex couples, those families were often separated, with spouses ordered to reside in separate facilities, although heterosexual couples were eligible for joint placement. If a gay or lesbian Medicare recipient wanted to reside in the same facility as their spouse, they were often forced to disenroll from Medicare and pay more out-of-pocket to stay near their partner. 

The new guidelines revise this standard, confirming that Medicare now applies equally to all married couples, regardless of where the couple resides. That's important for legally married gay and lesbian Medicare recipients who reside in a nursing home in a state that does not embrace marriage equality, since they will still be eligible for the same benefits as opposite-sex couples.