Valentine’s Day is this Sunday. For a couple from the region who are deeply in love, Valentine’s Day should be carefree. Instead, it is a painful reminder of a national policy that prevents them from tying the knot.
“I’m looking forward to the day when I can go into the store and buy a card that says ‘my husband’ instead of just ‘mine, the one I love’ or something,” said Lori Long .
She and her fiancé Mark Contreras have big smiles on their faces as they sit at their kitchen table and tell their love story about Zoom.
“When he suggested he solidified that he was all in,” Long said.
Contreras, 50, asked Long to marry him on Christmas Day four years ago at his home in Salinas. They long for their wedding day desperately, but federal policy stands in their way. And this policy is complicated.
A great price to pay for marriage
Long has an autoimmune disease, HLA-B27 positive ankylosing spondylitis. In severe cases, like Long, the inflammatory disease causes bones in the spine to fuse together. She underwent several major operations that made her transition from wheelchair to cane easier. Your medical care is expensive.
Long, 49, has been disabled since childhood. Your illness limits your ability to work. So it was put on the parents’ employment record for social security benefits. In the eyes of the Social Security Agency, Long is a DAC (Disabled Adult Child) beneficiary. In 2018, SSA paid services to around 1.1 million DAC recipients. To qualify, they must be disabled before the age of 22 and have a parent who is disabled, is retiring, or has died.
Here is the problem. For Long and others like her, the benefits cease when they get married. That’s because social security assumes that the new spouse can support them in place of the parent. The benefits remain if the spouse is also disabled.
That means Long will lose her Medicare and the monthly benefits she depends on if she marries Contreras.
“It’s like being held hostage because losing my health and disability insurance is life-threatening for me,” Long said.
Contreras works full time as an accountant, but getting his insurance would be risky. Contreras was laid off at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although he was able to get another job, he temporarily lost his insurance. Long says Covered California would limit her treatment options and the doctors she can see.
Struggle to tie the knot
For a long time she didn’t know that there were rules about who to marry until Contreras fell to one knee. Just months after the proposal, Long would tell Contreras that she didn’t want to stand in his way of having a wife. But Contreras is by her side.
“We’re going to get married. At some point it will happen,” said Contreras. “I see other people getting married, it hurts. But I know our day will come.”
The couple are fighting for change through an online petition called Lori’s Law. Long has knocked on doors, reached out to disability rights organizations, and reached out to their local lawmakers. The office of US agent Jimmy Panetta is now involved in the matter.
“This is something where you hear it and you immediately think it’s unfair,” said Panetta.
His office is investigating possible laws, but it’s complicated. These rules were burned into the complex social security system decades ago. Pull a string, says Panetta, and it dissolves elsewhere.
He estimates the Social Security Trust Fund would lose approximately $ 1.5 billion to give Long and others respite in their position. That’s because the federal government saves money when people who receive disability benefits get married anyway. According to the SSA, around 3,000 DAC beneficiaries lost their benefits due to marriage in 2018.
“And right now, in Washington, DC, you see an attitude towards ensuring social security, strengthening social security,” said Panetta.
Still, he says it won’t stop her. The office is trying to find another source of income to offset the cost.
“An Impossible Choice”
Bethany Lilly, a disability rights attorney, says that in addition to the 1.1 million Americans who receive DAC benefits, there are also millions of people with supplemental security income (SSI) who also face penalties for marriage are, regardless of whether it is a reduction in their benefits or a total amount, loss. Lilly is with The Arc, a national organization based in Washington, DC that represents people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She hears heartbreaking stories all the time.
“People who are 18, 19, just starting out, they have their first boyfriend or girlfriend and they come and say, is it true I can’t get married?” said Lilly.
As Senior Director of Income Policy, Lilly focuses on policy issues related to social security benefits and other types of income support. While some couples choose to forego their accomplishments in order to get married, for others, Lilly puts it this way:
“The choice is yours, all right, I won’t have health insurance and I won’t be able to pay my rent or buy my groceries, or I can get married. It’s an impossible choice to force people to do, ”she said.
I won’t have health insurance and I won’t be able to pay my rent or buy my groceries or I will get married. That’s an impossible choice to make people do – Bethany Lilly
According to Lilly, lessons have been learned from the struggle for equality in marriage between different races and same-sex couples that non-marriage has profound consequences.
The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) also works with Long. Legal Director Claudia Center said DREDF is examining the possibility of a lawsuit.
“In recent years the Supreme Court has recognized that the right to marry is a fundamental right and that this marriage penalty interferes with the rights of people like Long who cannot marry without wreaking havoc on their lives,” Center said.
Dream about their wedding day
Long and Contreras hope that one day the financial barriers associated with their marriage will be a thing of the past. They dream of their wedding day and the ringing of church bells.
“The greatest thing is to see her smiling face running down the aisle,” said Contreras. “And of course we have our first dance and we both have to train for it.”
Long looks forward to their vows.
“We are husband and wife. And it means something. That extra title is just like that. ”
Whether on an official marriage certificate or a Valentine’s Day card.
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