"I Married for Health Insurance"

I confess. Despite the fact that my longtime beau and I haven't felt the need to say "I do," I've fantasized about getting hitched solely for the health insurance.

As a self-employed person, I spend thousands of dollars a year on insurance premiums, co-payments and other out-of-pocket health care costs. My boyfriend, on the other hand, works for a deep-pocketed megacorp that offers not just the Cadillac of health benefits but the tricked-out stretch limo: No matter how many prescriptions he fills, doctors he sees or trips to the hospital he makes, it won't cost him a dime.

I wouldn't be the first working stiff to entertain the notion of exchanging nuptials to get better health coverage. In April, a poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a leading health policy research group, found that in the past year 7 percent of U.S. adults married so one or the other could get on a partner's health insurance plan.

But just who are those 7 percent who promised to love, honor and, yes, even insure a significant other they may not have otherwise married just yet, if ever? What finally convinced them to take the connubial plunge? And what's their employment situation anyway? Let's take a look:

With This Surgery, I Thee Wed

"I was missing all my teeth on my upper jaw," said Jeff Heisler, a 38-year-old hotel chef, about the condition of his kisser two months before the date he was scheduled to wed his then-fiance, Jennifer, a 35-year-old nurse.

A collision with the handle of a freezer door at work had left him with 17 broken, decaying teeth, a world of oral hurt and a stack of wedding engagement photos in which he hadn't cracked a smile. Jeff's job didn't offer dental insurance (ironically, he couldn't bite into half the dishes he'd been hired to cook). And the Westerville, Ohio, couple couldn't afford the $6,000 needed to extract Jeff's damaged teeth and buy him a full upper denture plate.

Their solution? The couple had a justice of the peace marry them 51 days early -- unbeknownst to their families -- so Jeff could get the dental insurance offered by Jennifer's hospital job.

"I couldn't bear to watch him live in pain for any longer," Jennifer said. "My insurance paid 80 percent of the procedure and 90 percent of the anesthesia."

As a bonus, "In our wedding photos, all you see is bright, shiny, smiley white teeth," Jeff said.

This Domestic Partnership Is Tearing Me Apart ... Financially

After living together in unwedded bliss for three decades, Alison Johnson, 47, and Justus Addiss, 50, decided last year to make it legal.

"The primary driving force was the cost of health insurance," said Johnson, who works for herself as a consultant to nonprofit coalitions. "I was spending $679 per month for health insurance, when I could pay less than $1,000 per year by being on my partner's plan. The cold, hard reality of all that money going out the door each month was just too much."

Curiously, Johnson's partner, an IT professional, works for a company that offers health insurance to same-sex domestic partners but not to unmarried partners of the opposite sex. So without any fanfare, the Middletown, Conn., marriage holdouts took the plunge.

"With over 1,000 laws giving married couples rights that unmarried couples don't have, it's hard to stay unmarried," said Addiss, "especially as we age."

Friends with (Legal) Benefits

Of course not everyone who gets hitched for health coverage is in the work force.

"I married to obtain health insurance in retirement," said a 63-year-old Massachusetts woman who asked to remain anonymous.

Though the former hospital worker's relationship with her "best friend," a retired state corrections officer, is strictly platonic, the two tied the knot three years ago so she could get on his generous employer-funded health policy.

"I could get health insurance through my employer. However, almost my entire monthly retirement check would be used to pay the premium," she said.

Considering that the duo had already purchased a home on Cape Cod and taken up residence there together, "it was a natural progression to get married and put me on his policy."

May we all be so lucky to have such friends with benefits in our golden years.

But for some in search of a decent health plan, those marital ties can bind a bit too tightly.

Earlier this year, a 50-something Indiana couple who'd been married 11 years got divorced so that the recently laid off, uninsured husband would be eligible for Medicaid, which he needed to help pay for $80,000 worth of cancer treatments (because of his wife's $38,000 annual salary, he didn't qualify for a government-subsidized health plan). So despite being happy in their marriage, the pair dissolved their union and took up separate residences in the name of affordable health care.

On the opposite side of the connubial coin, some couples who want to marry can't -- for the very reason the Indiana husband and wife divorced.

"I have not gotten married because of health care," said a 39-year-old Web designer from Vancouver, Wash., who didn't want to give her name. "I have had my daughter on Washington state health care since she was born. If I were to get married to the guy that I have been with for the past 10 years, then our combined income would disqualify my daughter for her coverage."

Unfortunately, neither this conscientious mom nor her live-in beau, both of whom are self-employed (he works as a courier), can afford insurance of their own.

Alternatives to Saying 'I Do'

Even though the Society for Human Resource Management reported in June that 97 percent of U.S. employers offer their employees some form of health coverage, obviously not all perks and plans are created equal. Get laid off, retire or work as a temp, intern, part-timer, freelancer, do-gooder or minimum wager and you could find yourself up the health care creek without a paddle.

Sure, there's Cobra -- the 18 months of health coverage you often receive through an employer upon leaving the company -- to tide you over, but Cobra can be prohibitively costly.

Rather than rush to the altar, consider these other ways of obtaining health care coverage first:

State programs. The sites AHIRC.org and HealthInsuranceInfo.net list just about every individual, group and government-subsidized plan available in each of the 50 states.

Professional associations. If self-employed, see if your chamber of commerce or favorite industry association offers affordable health coverage; many do. Also see the Freelancers Union, which offers coverage in 31 states.

eHealthInsurance.com. The Web site eHealthInsurance.com lets you comparison shop among multiple insurance companies and health plans.

An insurance agent. If you want someone to do the comparison shopping for you, work with an insurance agent, which won't cost you a thing (insurance companies pay their commissions, not you). To find a licensed agent near you, see the National Association of Health Underwriters Web site.

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