Season 4 | Episode 3
Apr 15, 2021

The marriage penalty

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After spending years fighting to get disability benefits, Amber was finally approved. But she and her wife, Diana, didn’t realize they had entered a complicated, arcane system where health care might cost them their marriage.

Amber and Diana got engaged after just a year of dating. Gay marriage was illegal in most states at the time, but it was more about the symbol, being committed. It would take six more years for them to tie the knot.

“I do remember, like, one of my vows … was the ‘in sickness and in health,'” Diana said. We’re using pseudonyms for both her and Amber to protect their privacy. “That was very important to me.”

“She knew I was a rough piece of work,” Amber said.

Amber had been diagnosed with a painful bladder condition when she was young — there was no cure, and they knew it would mean expensive treatments and doctor appointments for the rest of her life. Marriages come with all kinds of challenges, and Amber and Diana were ready to face them — for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.

But nothing could have prepared them for the maze of bureaucracy they would have to navigate to get disability benefits.

Amber got Supplemental Security Income, a program for low-income people with disabilities that provides cash assistance and access to Medicaid. The battle to get approved took three years and a court date. But staying eligible for SSI means meeting strict income and asset limits — Amber and Diana learned they couldn’t have more than $2,000 in savings, a number that hasn’t changed since 1989.

“It’s like our government wants to keep us in a state of abject, complete poverty in order to get any sort of health care” Diana said.

On today’s show, we’ll follow her and Amber’s odyssey through that complicated, arcane system — and the crushing revelation that the best way to keep their marriage vows might be getting divorced.

If you liked this episode, send it to a loved one dealing with the health care system.

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The team

Megan Detrie Senior Producer
Hayley Hershman Producer

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