Study: Divorced Women At Risk For Losing Health Insurance

As they pick up the pieces after divorce, many women find themselves without health insurance, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Michigan found that 115,000 U.S. women lose health insurance every year after divorce, and 65,000 still lack coverage months or even years later. (See: " Split time: kids, custody and insurance.")

The study exposes one more aspect of the precarious financial position many recently divorced women face. Medical debt contributes to 62 percent of personal bankruptcy filings, according to 2009 study published in the American Journal of Medicine.  (See: " Love hurts: 5 insurance heartaches after divorce.")

Previous research has shown that women's incomes drop after divorce and that single people generally are not as healthy as married people. But little research has zeroed in on how divorce affects health insurance coverage, says lead author Bridget Lavelle, who conducted the study with UM sociologist Pamela Smock.

The study, published in December in the "Journal of Health and Social Behavior," examined U.S. longitudinal data from 1996 to 2007 on women ages 26 to 64. It did not look at the impact of divorce on men's health insurance coverage, although Lavelle says that would be a good topic for future research.

According to the study, moderate-income women are more vulnerable to losing coverage than low-income and high-income women. Low-income women can qualify for Medicaid, and high-income women can usually afford to buy coverage.

Moderate-income women who are dependents on their spouses' employer-sponsored health plans are especially at risk. (See: " Free women's preventive health services roll out under reform.")

Here are some health insurance options to consider if you're facing divorce and depend on coverage from a spouse's plan:

• Sign up for coverage at work if your own employer offers it.

• Sign up for COBRA. Under the Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act, you can continue coverage through your ex-spouse's plan up to 36 months after divorce. Prepare for sticker shock -- you have to pay the premiums. COBRA applies to employers with at least 20 workers.

• Shop for an individual health insurance plan.

• Check whether you qualify for a government health plan, such as Medicaid, the state and federal insurance program for low-income people. Pre-existing condition? Check out the federal Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan.

• Self-employed? See if your business can qualify for a small-group health plan.