CHICAGO – For many older Americans who lost jobs during the recession, the quest for health care has been one obstacle after another. They’re unwanted by employers, rejected by insurers, struggling to cover rising medical costs and praying to reach Medicare age before a health crisis.
These luckless people, most in their 50s and 60s, have emerged this month as early winners under the nation’s new health insurance system. Along with their peers who are self-employed or whose jobs do not offer insurance, they have been signing up for coverage in large numbers, submitting new-patient forms at doctor’s offices and filling prescriptions at pharmacies.
“I just cried I was so relieved,” said Maureen Grey, a 58-year-old Chicagoan who finally saw a doctor this month after a fall in September left her in constant pain. Laid off twice from full-time jobs in the past five years, she saw her income drop from $60,000 to $17,800 a year. Now doing temp work, she was uninsured for 18 months before she chose a marketplace plan for $68 a month.
Americans ages 55 to 64 make up 31 percent of new enrollees in the new health insurance marketplaces, the largest segment by age group, according to the federal government’s latest figures. They represent a glimmer of success for President Barack Obama’s beleaguered law.
The Great Recession hit them hard, and for some its impact has lingered.
Aging boomers are more likely to be in debt as they enter retirement than were previous generations, with many having purchased more expensive homes with smaller down payments, said economist Olivia Mitchell of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. One in five has unpaid medical bills and 17 percent are underwater with their home values. Fourteen percent are uninsured.
As of December, 46 percent of older jobseekers were among the long-term unemployed, compared with less than 25 percent before the recession.
And those financial setbacks happened just as their health care needs became more acute. Americans in their mid-50s to mid-60s are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than other age groups, younger or older, accounting for 3 in 10 of the adult diabetes diagnoses in the United States each year. And every year after age 50, the rate of cancer diagnosis climbs.
The affordable coverage is “an answer to a prayer, really,” said Laura Ingle, a 57-year-old Houston attorney who had been denied coverage repeatedly because she has sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease. She recently had back surgery for a painful condition that’s been bothering her for months.
Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger said he’s noticed a recent increase in patients in this age group at his family practice in Miami. Many have untreated chronic conditions that have progressed to an advanced stage.
“Many have delayed necessary treatments due to costs and expect a total and quick workup on their first visit,” he said, adding they want referrals to specialists and tests including colonoscopies and mammograms.
The abundance of older patients signing up is no surprise to the Obama administration, which conducted internal research last year that showed the “sick, active and worried” would be the most responsive to messages urging them to seek coverage.
Signing up younger, healthier enrollees is seen as more difficult, but crucial to keeping future insurance rates from increasing. The administration said those age groups may put off enrolling until closer to the March 31 deadline.
“We have always anticipated that those with more health needs would sign up early on, and that young and healthy people would wait until the end,” administration spokeswoman Joanne Peters said.
Some of the aging boomers were determined to get coverage in the marketplace, despite repeated problems and frustration with the federal website.
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