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Marriage or Medical Care? Some Couples Have to Choose

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Rudy and Emily Friece were married for 48 years, with two children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They met at a roller skating rink and married within a year in a simple civil ceremony at a courthouse when Rudy turned 21.

The couple intended to stay married for the rest of their lives; however, after almost half a century of marriage, they were forced to get a divorce.

The Star-Banner reported that Emily developed terminal bone cancer and required $2,800 weekly chemotherapy treatments. The Frieces could not afford the treatments, and because they were married, Emily did not qualify for Medicaid. The only way Emily could get the medical treatment she needed was to get divorced.

After a friend advised the Frieces that if Emily were divorced she could qualify for Medicaid, Rudy and Emily walked to a drugstore and purchased a guidebook on dissolutions. They took $75 and their petition for divorce to an Ohio courthouse in February 2005. Rudy remembers the judge telling them that he had never granted a divorce to a couple who had been married for so long.

Medicaid is a combined state and federal program that provides health coverage for low-income individuals. The program sets a limit on the amount of assets a person may own and still qualify for coverage. Traditionally, it has been easier for single people to qualify for Medicaid.

Emily Friece passed away two years ago. Rudy says that before she died she would often cry about the divorce. After divorcing, the Frieces stayed together and Rudy took care of Emily until the end. The Frieces are a testament to the poor state of the health care system in the United States. They are also part of a small but growing number of elderly or low-income couples that feel forced into divorce by serious medical problems. On the other end of the spectrum, some couples jump into marriage in order to get health care coverage.

The eligibility requirements for receiving some types of Medicaid coverage can be extremely difficult to meet, but some elder law experts are wary over couples' willingness to divorce in order to qualify. For some people, divorce is the only answer and way to get necessary medical treatment.

David and Debra Rowley were married for 13 years before they divorced four years ago. Debra suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and divorce was necessary for her to qualify for Medicaid coverage.

Debra's trips to the Belleview Clinic cost the couple $90 per visit and her twice-monthly medications cost from $100 to $190. After she and David divorced, she was able to qualify for medical assistance and food stamps. She now receives her medications at no cost and has been able to have MRIs that she needed. David Rowley is a Vietnam veteran who now works as a truck driver. He says that a state worker at the Social Security office told him that as a married couple, he and Debra owned too many shared assets for her to qualify for Medicaid coverage. The couple owned two vehicles, a motorcycle, a vacant lot in the forest and a travel trailer.

The worker at the Social Security office told David that if he divorced Debra, her chances of meeting the Medicaid eligibility requirements would be drastically increased. That's exactly what he did. The Rowleys did not want to divorce but felt that they had no other option. After the divorce they still lived together but their relationship deteriorated. Like the Frieces, their story also has a sad ending.

In August, Debra Rowley was found guilty of attempted second-degree murder for slamming her car onto a mobile home porch where David and a friend were having a drink. She has been sentenced to almost 7 years in prison, where prisoners receive free medical care.


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