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Medicaid: A Path to Health Equity for the LGBTQ Community

Originally published for Harbage Consulting (June 27, 2018)

Pride month is a time to honor the achievements and contributions of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) community. Marked by the Stonewall Riots in June of 1969, the month provides the opportunity to celebrate the unprecedented gains in LGBTQ equality, while also reflecting on the work left to be done.

The LGBTQ community has experienced a monumental expansion of rights and equality over the past decade, including marriage equality and official recognition of LGBTQ partnerships, however access to health coverage and care continues to be a challenge. The LGBTQ community has poorer health outcomes and greater health care needs than their straight counterparts. LGBTQ people also have higher poverty rates and less access to private health insurance and are therefore more likely to rely on Medicaid and other public programs.

Due to the historical lack of access to state and federal marriage recognition and the rights and benefits provided by it, until 2013, LGBTQ people had not been able to secure health benefits through their spouse’s or partner’s employer benefits. Still, in 2014, almost 9% of LGBTQ couples reported being denied when trying to add their partner/spouse to their employer-sponsored health plan.

Employment discrimination has also impacted the insurance rates of LGBTQ people. Currently, only 22 states and the District of Columbia have non-discrimination employment laws that protect LGBTQ people from being fired based on their sexual orientation and only 20 states include gender identity protections. The lack of employment protections has pushed many LGBTQ people into low-wage jobs that do not offer health insurance or unemployment benefits.

Underscoring all of these statistics is the fact that the LGBTQ community is also more likely to live in poverty. 2013 data showed that 20.8% of LGBTQ adults lived in poverty, compared to 16.25% of the general adult population. And this statistic becomes even more dire for children in LGBTQ families. Children in same-sex couple households are almost twice as likely to be poor as kids in married, heterosexual couple households. For these populations, access to Medicaid is a life-saver.


According to the Williams Institute, about 1.2 million LGBTQ adults are enrolled in Medicaid as their primary source of health insurance. And due to the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, the uninsured rate of the LGBTQ population decreased from 27% to 17% since 2014. Following are several key reasons why Medicaid’s role in the health care system is so critical for the LGBTQ community:

  • LGBTQ People Have Greater Health Care Needs. The LGBTQ community experiences more physical health challenges and is more likely to rate their health as poor than straight or non-transgender people. They also have higher rates of risk factors for chronic conditions, such as higher obesity rates, smoking rates, and drug use.

  • Furthermore, HIV and AIDS continue to impact gay and bisexual men, as well as transgender women. Medicaid is the largest source of health insurance coverage for people living with HIV and AIDS, covering more than 40% of the population. Several states implemented specific Medicaid waiver programs to provide additional services for people living with HIV/AIDs. As of 2012, 13 states had home and community-based services (HCBS) waivers that expanded health care services for people living with HIV/AIDS, and four states included HIV/AIDS as a qualifying condition for their Medicaid health homes programs, which provides extra care coordination and care management services. Medicaid expansion also significantly increased access for people living with HIV/AIDS. Finally, the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program plays an important role providing access to critical HIV care and treatment services to those who are uninsured and underinsured.

  • LGBTQ people also experience greater incidences of mental illness. According to NAMI, LGBTQ individuals are almost 3 times more likely than others to experience a mental health condition such as major depression or generalized anxiety disorder. They also have higher rates of suicide; it is estimated that 30-50% of transgender people attempt suicide in their lifetime. Due to the discrimination and stigma LGBTQ people face, in addition to a lack of family support, ensuring access to mental health services is one of the most pressing issues facing the LGBTQ community, especially for transgender individuals.

LGBTQ People Experience Ongoing Barriers to Access to Care. Despite their greater health care needs, LGBTQ people have more challenges accessing health care services than non-LGBTQ people. This is due to several factors, including discrimination and lack of cultural competence among providers, as well as lack of coverage of specific health care services and availability of providers. Fear of discrimination also leads LGBTQ people to not seek care, postpone care, or hide their sexual orientation or gender identity from their health care providers.

  • Transgender people overwhelmingly face this challenge, as many providers are unsure how to treat transgender people, from basic interactions such as using the correct name or preferred pronouns, to more complicated issues, such as screening transmen for cervical and breast cancer (if relevant). One study noted that almost 40% of transgender people have faced some type of harassment or discrimination when seeking routine health care, and many report being denied care outright or encountering violence in health care settings.

  • Even when LGBTQ people have Medicaid or private insurance coverage, specific health care services may not be covered by their policy. This is especially true for transgender people. For example, in 2017, about half of the insurers in the marketplace excluded specific treatments or services that transgender people may seek when medically transitioning. Or insurers may not cover a “gender-specific” screening or treatment (for example, for prostate or cervical cancer) when the patient’s gender marker differs from the gender typically treated. While the Affordable Care Act included a slate of anti-discrimination reforms that have improved access to health care services and treatments, LGBTQ people continue to be impacted by discrimination and stigma in the health care sector.


While Medicaid provides a critical pathway to health coverage for LGBTQ people, offering high quality, timely access to needed services — including eliminating discrimination and stigma — will need to be addressed to improve health care outcomes for the LGBTQ community. Harbage Consulting is committed to ensuring that Medicaid and the health care safety net remain strong for the LGBTQ community and the millions of others who rely on it.


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