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The Hidden Costs of DOMA

By Carl G. Streed Jr.
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
MD Candidate, Class of 2013

On July 20th, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing addressing S.B. 598 The Respect for Marriage Act. The Respect for Marriage Act attempts to right the wrongs committed by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Since its passage in 1996, DOMA has limited the definition of marriage to be between “one man and one woman,” stripping states’ of their right to define marriage (as family law is generally under their purview) and has relegated thousands of same-sex couples to second class citizens. Under DOMA, same-sex couples cannot enjoy over one-thousand federal and state marriage benefits: they cannot access the plethora of tax-benefits afforded opposite-sex couples that are married, they are denied social security survivor benefits, they cannot extend health insurance coverage without being over taxed, and same-sex partners of veterans are denied all survivor benefits afforded an opposite-sex partner. These benefits afforded opposite-sex marriages provide, among other things, a safety net for couples by minimizing the costs of raising a family, allowing couples to save money for the future, and ensuring that should one partner die, the other is provided for. The denial of these benefits to same-sex marriages significantly burdens them and leaves many with few options to manage their finances and maintain their health coverage.

Here are some of the stories I heard at the hearing:

Ron Wallen (see Ron's testimony below), a resident of California, talked of his marriage to his husband, Tom Carrollo. The two had been together for over 58 years before Tom succumbed to his ongoing battle with leukemia. Because Ron is denied survivor benefits under DOMA, he has seen his monthly income drop from $3050 to $900, putting him at risk of losing his home and threatening to limit his access to health care.

Susan Murray (read testimony here), a resident of Vermont and long time LGBT advocate, talked of how her health insurance, $6,200 per year, afforded by her wife’s employer is considered taxable income under DOMA (opposite-sex couples are not taxed on partner health insurance). Additionally, Susan is unable to access her wife’s flexible spending account for health care costs. The restrictions placed on Susan and her wife, Karen Murray, amount to reduced access to health care and, consequently, increased costs for care.

Andrew Sorbo (read testimony here), a resident of Connecticut, shared his story of loss and hardship after his husband, Dr. Colin Atterbury, died of pancreatic cancer. DOMA did not allow Andrew to oversee his husband’s medical care or access survivor benefits.

As we work to repeal DOMA, Andrew Sorbo reminded the Senate Judiciary Committee that, “the financial aspect is only one aspect of the harm that DOMA does, and the discrimination against gay people (is) an insult to our dignity and our sense of equality.”

Find out more about the campaign to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.

You can follow me on Twitter at @cjstreed and @AMSAPolicy

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