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Health and Access to Care and Coverage for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Individuals in the U.S.

Health Challenges

Health is shaped by a host of social, economic, and structural factors.1 For LGBT individuals, these factors include the experience and impact of discrimination, stigma, and ostracism which affect health outcomes, access, and experience with health care.2,3,4 Research available to date finds that while sexual and gender minorities have many of the same health concerns as the general population, they experience some health challenges at higher rates, and face several unique health challenges.

Chronic Conditions

Studies have found that sexual and gender minorities experience worse physical health compared to their heterosexual and non-transgender counterparts.5,6

  • A recent literature review found that self-identified LGB7 individuals are more likely than heterosexuals to rate their health as poor, have more chronic conditions, and have higher prevalence and earlier onset of disabilities. Overall, LGB people report more asthma diagnoses, headaches, allergies, osteoarthritis, and gastro-intestinal problems than heterosexual individuals.8
  • Additionally, there are differences between subgroups within the LGBT community. Lesbian and bisexual women report poorer overall physical health and higher rates of asthma, urinary tract infections, and Hepatitis B and C than heterosexual women. Lesbian and bisexual women also report heightened risk for and diagnosis of some cancers and higher rates of cardiovascular disease diagnosis. Similarly, gay and bisexual men report more cancer diagnoses and lower survival rates, higher rates of cardiovascular disease and risk factors, as well as higher total numbers of acute and chronic health conditions such as headaches and urinary incontinence than heterosexual men.9
  • According to a study of Massachusetts residents, one of the few published studies that examines health status between different subgroups of LGB individuals, approximately one in ten heterosexual people, lesbian women, and gay men in the state rate their health as “fair” or “poor.” The rate is approximately twice as high among bisexual adults (Figure 2).10

    Figure 2: Health Status Indicators Among Women and Men in Massachusetts, by Sexual Orientation, 2001-2008

    Figure 2: Health Status Indicators Among Women and Men in Massachusetts, by Sexual Orientation, 2001-2008

  • More than twice as many bisexual women experience activity limitations caused by disability than heterosexual women. Similarly, bisexual men are also much more likely to experience activity limitations caused by disability compared to heterosexual men.
  • In addition to health outcomes, on average LGB individuals have higher rates of risk factors for chronic illnesses. Obesity rates are higher among lesbian and bisexual women compared to heterosexual women, but are lowest among gay men. Among both women and men, smoking rates are highest among bisexual groups, followed by lesbian and gay persons, and lowest among heterosexual people. A meta-analysis of several studies found that overall, LGBT people smoke cigarettes at 1.5 to 2.5 times the rate of heterosexual and non-transgender people.11
  • According to another study of Massachusetts residents, transgender persons are the least likely among LGBT individuals to self-report their health as Excellent or Very Good (67% vs. 79%) and are twice as likely to report limitations in daily activities due to impairment of health problems (33% vs. 16%).12

HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

One of the most significant health challenges facing the LGBT community has been the HIV/AIDS epidemic’s impact on gay and bisexual men, and there are increasing data on the disproportionate impact of HIV on transgender women. After experiencing a dramatic rise in new infections in the 1980s, efforts by the gay community and public health officials helped to bring HIV incidence down; however, in recent years, new infections among gay and bisexual men in the U.S. have been on the rise, the only group for which infections are increasing (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Impact of HIV on Gay and Bisexual Men in the U.S.

Figure 3: Impact of HIV on Gay and Bisexual Men in the U.S.

  • In 2010, gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men (MSM), while representing an estimated 2% of the U.S. population, accounted for more than half (56%) of all people living with HIV in the United States, and two-thirds (66%) of new HIV infections.13
  • Between 2008 and 2010, the rate of new HIV infections among young black MSM increased by 20%, the highest increase among all sub-populations. Black MSM accounted for 36% of new HIV infections in 2010.14
  • Transgender women, particularly transgender women of color, are also at high risk of HIV. Studies have found that more than one in four (28%) are HIV positive,15 and a majority are unaware that they are infected.
  • To date, there have been no confirmed cases for female-to-female sexual transmission of HIV in the United States.16 However, HIV is an issue that affects lesbians as well as bisexual women, since individuals who identify as lesbian may still have sexual relationships with men, and lesbians and bisexual women are also at risk of HIV via transmission modes that do not involve sexual contact (such as injection drug use).
  • STI rates are higher among some LGB groups than heterosexuals, and rates have been increasing for some infections. For example, MSM account for more than seven in ten (72%) new syphilis cases, an alarming increase that has re-emerged during the last several years.17 MSM also account for 15%–25% of all new Hepatitis B infections.18 Given the strong interaction between HIV and other STIs, this is a particular concern for MSM.
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common STI, and is a major cause of cervical, anal, and mouth cancers.19 MSM are seventeen times more likely to develop anal cancer than men who only have sex with women.20 The HPV vaccine, which protects against certain strains of the virus that are associated with anal cancer, could reduce anal cancer rates among future generations of MSM.

Mental Health and Substance Use

Research has found that LGBT individuals are at elevated risk for some mental health and behavioral health conditions, with studies finding that they are two and a half times more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and substance misuse.21,22 The history of discrimination and stigma contributes to higher rates of mental illness.23 In fact, until the 1970s, homosexuality was considered a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders and by various professional organizations. The diagnosis “gender dysphoria,” which has replaced the transgender diagnosis in the DSM, is intended to communicate the emotional distress that transgender people may experience as well as promote insurance coverage of services related to gender transition, such as counseling or hormone therapy, that typically have not been covered by insurance plans.24 Still, stigma and prejudice against sexual and gender minorities remain pervasive and continue to have negative consequences for the mental health of the LGBT population.25

LGBT adults experience higher rates of mental illness, substance abuse, and discrimination compared to heterosexual and non-transgender adults. Additionally, lack of acceptance from family members is correlated with higher rates of mental illness and substance use among the LGBT population.26

  • A few studies have attempted to estimate population-based rates of substance use among gay men; however data from these studies are older and not necessarily comparable to the heterosexual population. For the few studies that do allow for comparisons, rates are higher among MSM. An estimated 25% of LGBT adults abuse alcohol, compared to 5-10% of the general population.27 MSM are more than 12 times as likely to use amphetamines and almost 10 times as likely to use heroin as heterosexual men.28 Studies have found lesbians “more often smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol to excess” than heterosexual women.29
  • More studies have used state-level data or sample populations to identify mental health trends among LGBT individuals. Nearly one fifth (19%) of bisexual adults in Massachusetts report they had recently seriously considered suicide, compared to 4% of lesbian and gay adults and 3% of heterosexuals.30 There are notable differences between subgroups, with the rate highest among bisexual women (26%), followed by bisexual men (11%), gay men (6%), and approximately 3% among all other subgroups.  Another nationwide study found a reported 41% prevalence of suicide attempts among the transgender population.31

Sexual Assault and Physical Violence

Sexual assault and physical violence can have lasting consequences for victims, families, and communities.32 LGBT individuals experience higher rates of sexual and physical violence compared to heterosexual and non-transgender individuals.  Violence toward LGBT people has inspired public policy responses. For example, federal legislation as well as some state laws allow for the classification of violence based on gender identity or sexual orientation bias as a “hate crime,” which has implications for penalties as well as funding to states and locales for deterrence and surveillance of these crimes.33 Key statistics include the following:

  • A recent poll of LGBT adults found that two thirds had experienced some form of discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, including subjection to slurs, rejection by a friend or family member, being physically threatened or attacked, receiving poor service at a place of business or treated unfairly by an employer, or made to feel unwelcome at a place of worship; a full 30% said they had been physically threatened or attacked.34
  • Many women and men have experienced some form of sexual violence, but the rates are significantly higher among some LGBT groups. It is estimated that almost half (46%) of bisexual women have been raped, as have 17% of heterosexual and 13% of lesbian women. More than four in ten heterosexual and lesbian women and the majority (75%) of bisexual women have experienced other forms of sexual violence, such as coercion or harassment. Six in ten (61%) bisexual women have encountered intimate partner violence (IPV), as have 44% of lesbian and 35% of heterosexual women (Figure 4).35

    Figure 4: Sexual Violence, by Sexual Orientation, 2010

    Figure 4: Sexual Violence, by Sexual Orientation, 2010

  • While sexual violence rates are higher among women overall, bisexual and gay men experience significantly higher rates than heterosexual men. Four in ten gay men and nearly half of bisexual men have encountered sexual violence other than rape. More than one-third (37%) of bisexual men have faced partner violence. For both men and women, the perpetrators were predominantly male.
  • Anti-LGBT bias also puts LGBT people at risk for physical violence. According to the FBI’s crime reporting surveillance, one in five hate crimes was due to sexual orientation bias.36 Studies using convenience samples have shown a significant number of LGBT individuals have been victims of physical and verbal assaults, as well as personal property damage, due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.37 One recent nationally representative study examined self-reported experiences with physical violence due to sexual orientation among gay men, lesbian women, and bisexual individuals, and found almost 8% of individuals have experienced physical violence once and 5.5% have experience physical violence at least twice. Gay men were the most likely to experience physical violence due to their sexual orientation.38 Transgender people, particularly transgender women and transgender people of color, are also at particular risk of physical violence.39 Statistics from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs indicate that half of the victims of anti-LGBT bias-motivated murders in 2012 were transgender women and the majority were also people of color.40

Adolescent and Young Adult Health

Adolescence and young adulthood are often times when individuals begin to identify as LGBT.41 While these times can be challenging for many individuals, they are often especially so for LGBT youth. Despite growing societal acceptance and understanding, some young people still suffer discrimination at the hands of their family and friends and in their schools and communities, experiences which can lead to serious challenges, such as housing problems, that affect health. There is growing awareness about bullying and violence affecting LGBT youth.  These include efforts to promote greater attention to fostering inclusive school climates, teaching youth about online safety, establishment of reporting processes in schools and communities when violence or bullying occur, and referring young people for professional mental and behavioral health services when needed. Key statistics include the following:

  • Like their adult counterparts, youth who identify as a sexual and/or gender minority experience higher rates of mental illness, substance abuse, violence, and discrimination compared to the general population. Additionally, LGBT youth are more likely to be homeless and live in poverty than non-LGBT youth. Research has found that parental rejection can increase the likelihood that an LGBT youth will suffer from depression, attempt suicide, use illegal drugs, and/or engage in risky sexual behaviors.42
  • Approximately 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, and the leading reasons for homelessness among this group due to family rejection.43
  • Almost two thirds (64%) of LGB students and 4 out of 10 (44%) transgender students report feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.44
  • LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth.45
  • Three times as many LGB youth report ever being raped, compared to their heterosexual peers (16% vs. 5%).45

Insurance Coverage and Access to Care

Research has shown that LGBT populations have different patterns of health coverage and utilization of services and has begun to document gaps within the delivery system in meeting the needs of the LGBT population.

  • A recent survey found that, of the close to 5.5 million LGBT individuals estimated to have incomes under 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL), one in three are uninsured currently and more than two-thirds have been uninsured for more than two years.46 Among this group, LGBT individuals with insurance are less likely than individuals in the general population to get insurance through their employer and more likely to be enrolled in Medicaid.  Additionally, almost 4 in 10 have medical debt and more than 4 in 10 report postponing medical care due to costs. 47,48
  • Since there are few studies on the LGBT population nationally as a whole, it is informative to look at some state-level estimates. Currently, an estimated 15% of the LGB population resides in California, and the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) is one of the few state-level health surveys that regularly collect information on sexual orientation and health coverage. According to the 2008 CHIS, 77% of LGB adults in the state have health insurance, compared to 82% of heterosexual adults.49 Among same-sex couples, estimates of the uninsured range from 11%50 to 17%51. In a study of transgender adults, 19% were uninsured compared to 15% of heterosexual people. As with the general population, uninsured rates were higher among transgender persons of color compared to those who are white.52
  • Research studies on same-sex couples find that LGB individuals have higher rates of unmet medical need because of cost and are less likely to have a regular provider.51 Research has also found that women in same-sex couples are less likely than heterosexual married women to have received timely medical care for both primary and specialty services. Among men in couples, gay men are three times as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to report delays in obtaining needed prescription medicines.53
  • Some studies have found that lesbian women in couples have lower rates of breast and cervical cancer screenings than married heterosexual women.54 In addition to lower mammography rates, lesbian women on average have higher rates of some risk factors for breast cancer, including greater alcohol use and lower likelihood of childbearing. 55,56
  • The available research on LGBT people is often limited to couples or combines lesbian, gay, and bisexual people while excluding transgender people. Studies that have stratified between these different groups suggest that there are important differences in access that are often masked in more aggregated studies. In particular, research finds that on some measures, bisexual individuals have more limited access to care while lesbian and gay individuals have rates comparable to heterosexual adults (Figure 5).

    Figure 5: Access to Care and Utilization of Services, by Sexual Orientation in Massachusetts, 2001-2008

    Figure 5: Access to Care and Utilization of Services, by Sexual Orientation in Massachusetts, 2001-2008

  • The transgender population is much more likely to live in poverty and less likely to have health insurance than the general population. Research reflects the impact of these barriers. In one survey of transgender individuals, nearly half (48%) of respondents postponed or went without care when they were sick because they could not afford it.57 In addition, many health plans include transgender-specific exclusions that deny transgender individuals coverage of services provided to non-transgender individuals, such as surgical treatment related to gender transition, mental health services, and hormone therapy.58
  • An individual’s relationship with providers is another important component of access to care. Significant shares of LGBT individuals report negative experiences when seeking care, ranging from disrespectful treatment from providers and staff, to providers’ lack of awareness of specific health needs. In a survey of LGB people, more than half of all respondents reported that they have faced cases of providers denying care, using harsh language, or blaming the patient’s sexual orientation or gender identity as the cause for an illness.59 Fear of discrimination may lead some people to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity from providers or avoid seeking care altogether.
  • For transgender persons, discrimination may be as personal as refusing to use the patient’s chosen name or as structural as providers’ lack of knowledge about how to provide appropriate care to transgender people. For example, most transgender men still have a cervix and should be screened for cervical cancer, which requires a sensitive approach.60 Studies of the transgender community show that up to 39% 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. 68,61,62
  • Medical education does not routinely encompass LGBT health issues. More than half of medical schools and public health school curricula lack instruction about the health concerns of LGBT people beyond work related to HIV/AIDS.63,64 However, the medical community’s awareness of LGBT health needs has grown. Several professional medical societies have formed policies and guidance that advocate on behalf of fair treatment and access for LGBT patients and health providers.65 For example, the American Medical Association (AMA) has issued an explicit nondiscrimination policy as well as numerous other statements that recognize prior discriminatory practices in the medical setting, the importance of better understanding and addressing LGBT health needs, the impact of discrimination on health and well-being, and the need to include sexual orientation in research. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health also maintains a set of standards and principles to guide health care professionals in providing health care to transgender people.66 Additionally, in 2011, the Joint Commission, an independent non-profit national organization that accredits and certifies more than 20,000 health care organizations and programs in the U.S., began to require that hospitals prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in order to be accredited.67
The LGBT Community Impact of Policies on Coverage and Access to Care