By Amy Norton
MONDAY, Sept. 16 (HealthDay News) -- Children of same-sex parents are less likely than their peers to have private health insurance, but the disparity shrinks in states that recognize legal same-sex unions, a new U.S. study finds.
The results are not surprising, experts say, because employers have not had to extend health benefits to an employee's same-sex partner -- or that partner's children.
But the study does highlight a less-talked-about aspect of the debate on gay marriage, said lead researcher Gilbert Gonzales, a Ph.D. candidate in health policy and management at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
"We're fairly certain from past research that access to health insurance does directly affect children's health," Gonzales said. But there's been little research into whether same-sex couples' kids lack access.
Using data from a large federal survey, the investigators found that about two-thirds of U.S. children and teens with same-sex parents had private health insurance (63 percent of those with two fathers, and about 68 percent with two mothers).
That compared with about 78 percent of kids with married heterosexual parents, the researchers report online Sept. 16 in Pediatrics.
And when they weighed other factors -- such as parents' incomes and education -- the researchers found that kids living with same-sex parents were 39 percent to 45 percent less likely to have private health insurance versus those with a married mom and dad.
The results looked different, however, in states that allowed gay marriage or civil unions, or had comprehensive domestic partnership laws, Gonzales said.
In those states, kids living with two mothers were no less likely to have private insurance, though their peers with two fathers still were. And there were no clear disparities in states that allowed "second-parent adoptions" -- which means both partners in a same-sex relationship can be their child's legally adoptive parent.
"I think we are going to see more and more research like this that shows how marriage-equality laws have far-reaching health consequences," said Richard Wight, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose work has found a link between legal unions and better mental health for gay and lesbian adults.
Wight likened marriage equality to a "structural intervention." That refers to any broad policy, from seatbelt laws to fluoride in drinking water, that can affect people's well-being -- "sometimes without them even realizing it," Wight noted.
"Increasingly," he said, "research is demonstrating that laws legalizing same-sex marriages are advantageous to health."
The current study did not look at children's actual well-being. But like Gonzales, Wight pointed to the known correlation between access to health insurance and children's health.
Right now, 13 U.S. states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage, and another six recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships that include full spousal and family rights. Eighteen states allow second-parent adoptions.