Two important changes came quietly to some of the country’s most widely used social services this week that will allow same-sex partners and married trans people to qualify for coverage along with their spouse. On Tuesday, the Social Security Administration announced it was updating its policies to allow transgender individuals to automatically collect social security benefits through their spouses. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services instituted a similar change Wednesday, when it announced that same-sex couples will now be recognized in any application for Medicare benefits regardless of where they live. Both are an extension of efforts to change federal policy following the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act last June.
The social security change was spurred by the case of Robina Asti, a trans woman who was denied benefits after her longtime partner’s death because she was “legally male” at the time of their marriage. Asti was awarded benefits this Valentine’s Day, two years after her husband’s death. Lambda Legal, which represented Asti throughout her petition, lauded the change as “a 180 degree turn” from the old one, under which trans individuals had to seek spousal benefits on a case-by-case basis that could drag on for years — a particularly heavy burden on the elderly.
The CMS decision will allow same-sex couples in any state to apply for Medicare benefits, regardless of the marriage laws in their state of residence. Previously, Medicare officials in each state had authorization to administer benefits to same-sex couples based on local law. Now, a same-sex couple married in New York but living in Florida is eligible to seek benefits as a couple even though Florida does not recognize their marriage. Effective immediately, couples can apply for Medicare enrollment and request Special Enrollment Periods or reductions in late enrollment penalties for same-sex spouses. Couples in domestic partnerships and civil unions will gain access to some, but not all of these benefits. Some who previously applied but were denied benefits because of DOMA will be eligible to re-apply, as well.
The pattern we see here — protection for LGBT people as the default, rather than the exception — is one that has slowly but surely spread in the wake of the DOMA repeal. In the case of health care it is particularly important because, as we know, LGB people have historically been disproportionately likely to be uninsured. The community sees higher poverty rates as well, making things like collecting a deceased spouse’s social security benefits even more vital. The lack of consistency in legislation surrounding marriage between different states has also placed disproportionate stress on trans married people, who found that the legal status of their marriage may fluctuate wildly between states, a condition which the repeal of DOMA is slowly correcting. But even if that weren’t the case, these changes would be important, because they affirm that being queer or trans does not automatically exclude you from the rights everyone else in this country is entitled to.