by Sam Skovgaard, Medical Student and CCHI LEADS intern

All Coloradoans should have access to health insurance, regardless of who they are.  A significant barrier to equal health coverage for same-sex couples has been eliminated by the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), but Colorado’s gay and lesbian couples will still face legal barriers to equal access to health coverage.

Today, the Supreme Court struck down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in a 5-4 decision.  DOMA denied same-sex married couples numerous federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples.  This meant that legally married same-sex couples faced tax burdens that cost them on average $1,069 per year more than heterosexual couples.  For the 12 states and the District of Columbia that already have gay marriage laws (now including California following the Prop 8 ruling), today’s ruling eliminates this disparity.

Colorado passed the Colorado Civil Union Act earlier this year, which gave gay and lesbian couples in Colorado the right to enter into a legally-binding commitment that provided many of the same benefits and legal protections as marriage at the state level. But a civil union isn’t technically a marriage by legal definition.  An important provision of the Colorado Civil Union Act made it possible for parties in a civil union to cover their partners as dependents on their health insurance starting on January 1st, 2014.  Married couples do not have to pay taxes on income that they spend on their spouse’s health insurance.  Colorado same-sex couples can enter into civil unions, not marriage, so they do have to pay taxes on that money.  Today’s ruling does not change that, but further action by the Obama administration combined with action by the Colorado legislature could remedy this problem.

The Obama administration could decide to change the IRS rules and give couples in civil unions the same federal tax benefits that married couples receive.  If that happens, action will still be necessary by the Colorado legislature to amend the Colorado Civil Union Act for couples to file jointly on their state tax returns.  A section in the Colorado Civil Union Act specifically bars civil union couples from filing their state tax returns jointly.  This could be amended by the Colorado legislature next session.

Other barriers to equal health coverage remain for partners of federal employees.  Now that DOMA has been overturned, same-sex partners of federal employees can be covered under the employee’s health insurance in states that recognize same-sex marriage.  Colorado’s civil unions do not grant the same status as marriage under law, so civil union partners of federal employees in Colorado will not be able to get coverage under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Act.

In 2006, Colorado voters passed Amendment 43, which defined marriage in Colorado as being between one man and one woman. The Supreme Court today also determined in a 5-4 decision that the party attempting to enforce California’s Proposition 8 (Prop 8) ban on same-sex marriage did not have legal standing in a federal appeals court. This means that an earlier ruling by a lower court, which found Prop 8 unconstitutional, is upheld and same-sex couples in California can be legally married. This decision was relatively narrow and does not impact Colorado’s Amendment 43, which effectively bans gay marriage in our state. However, today’s Prop 8 ruling could provide more movement for additional legal cases against same-sex marriage bans or laws that define marriage on solely heterosexual terms.

While today’s ruling has brought us one step closer to equal healthcare access for the LGBT community, more work lies ahead for Colorado.  Having equal access to the care you need, when you need it, isn’t too much to ask.  Working together, we can continue to break down the barriers that stand in the way.

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