Does marriage provide health benefits? According to the research, it does, but not according to many in Congress. Under the Senate-passed health care bill, couples who choose to wed, or to remain wedded, will face financial penalties cohabiting couples will be spared, even if a married couple makes the exact same combined income as a cohabiting couple.

Robert Rector explains that the “anti-marriage discrimination” found in the Senate bill is due to married couples’ income being counted jointly, reducing the amount of subsidies they can receive for health care. For example, assuming that neither Ben nor Beth, age 20, receives employer health insurance, and each makes $20,000 for a combined income of $40,000, Ben and Beth will receive the same total subsidy that an individual making $40,000 would receive. On the other hand, if Ben and Beth choose to cohabit instead, their incomes would be counted separately and each would receive the subsidy that a person making only $20,000 a year would receive. The difference in this case amounts to $4,317 a year.

While marriage penalties exist for younger couples like Ben and Beth, the penalties are even greater for husbands and wives in their later, empty-nester years, especially those who are middle-class. For some couples, this penalty could exceed $10,000 per year. However, even lower-income couples would be hit. For example, a 60-year-old couple with a joint income of $30,000 (each making $15,000), would receive $4,000 less per year than their cohabiting counterparts.

One Democratic Senate Finance Committee aide said, “The Finance Committee, along with other committees in the Senate, took pains to craft the most equitable overall structure possible, and that’s what we have here,” despite acknowledging the marriage penalty. Essentially, the Senate has decided that singles and cohabiters should receive preferential treatment over married couples. Considering the benefits to adults, children, and society that marriage generally brings, the government would be both wise and frugal to promote this institution, instead of discourage it. However, this would be only the newest government program to penalize people for tying the knot. Welfare programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid, include marriage disincentives as well.

While the Senate version of the health care bill will not punish all married couples, those without employer-sponsored health insurance—exactly the people a government health care plan is targeting—and those without children, such as young couples and empty-nesters, will more than likely be negatively affected. In some cases, the penalty will be quite significant. Someone should remind Congress that a bill meant to promote the health of the nation should not include harming the societal institution most likely to promote good health.