Many of us winced recently at headlines that read “Women’s Mid-Life Crisis – No Health Insurance.” But who was really surprised?
We learned last fall, via the Kaiser Foundation, that older women — many of whom had private insurance — spent 17 percent of total income on out-of-pocket health care expenses, a figure that escalates as we age.
It didn’t take President Obama’s soulful reference last Thursday to “folks making $40,000 a year,” or commercials about families fallen on hard times, to remind us that we as older women face a unique set of challenges when it comes to paying for our health care. Or that there were precious few women at the table during President Obama’s health summit last week, as noted in The Daily Beast this week by Dan Rather. “Six out of 42. That’s it?” Rather asked. As should we all.
Most of those present were women we’ve hailed at WVFC, and some not: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Nancy-Ann DeParle, the White House health-care adviser. Most have already declared in public statements what we also know: that it’s particularly brutal out there for women 45-64.They’d all probably already seen the report behind today’s headline: “Mid-Life Crisis,” which examined data from UCLA’s 2007 California Health Interview Survey.
The UCLA study gave heft to its cruelly apt title with new evidence, including the finding that women between the ages of 50 and 64 were twice as likely to lack health insurance as our male peers. We’re also more likely to have health problems, which presents a chicken-and-egg problem, since insurance options for such purchasers are often limited.
Study authors Roberta Wyn and Erin Peckham noted that “Women ages 50-64 are more likely than younger women (ages 18-49) to report they are in fair or poor health and have limitations in their daily activity due to a health problem.” One-quarter reported having a condition that “limits their basic physical activities, such as walking, climbing stairs, reaching, lifting or carrying.”
But they also found that one-third of low-income women, one-quarter of single, and one-fifth of widowed women over 50 were without insurance for at least a full year — percentages that may have risen sharply since the economic crash that followed the 2007 survey. This may be a matter of life and death, or at least poor health; uninsured women of all income levels reported to UCLA that they had delayed doctor visits and important medical screenings due to cost.
The only silver lining in this particular cloud? That people have been working hard to solve the problem, from the competing health care proposals to innovative programs by hospitals and communities. One bright light for California, just getting started when the above survey was conducted, is the singular Healthy San Francisco program, which offers top-quality care to San Francisco’s uninsured with fees on a sliding scale. An article in San Francisco Magazine about HSF features a middle-class Web designer, who as a freelancer can’t swing the insurance but is happy to pay his fair share; it also mentions a 49-year-old woman named Sharon, a library assistant with hydrocephalus, who was just treated for thyroid cancer. She credits HSF with saving her life: looking at the UCLA survey, perhaps what’s most relevant is the fact that she saw good doctors early, before it became incurable cancer— something that lack of insurance might have otherwise denied her.
I wish Sharon had been at that Washington table last week. I sort of wish I had been, too, so I could tell them that I’ve lived with multiple sclerosis for 26 years and that my own insurance, which I get through a former employer under COBRA, is about to run out – and insurance brokers laugh when I ask what a private policy would cost. I’ve been saying since December that if nothing is done I’m not sure what I’ll do. The UCLA report does not mention “pre-existing conditions,” but maybe it doesn’t need to.
The program that helped Sharon is among many other “pilots,” such as Minnesota’s Menninger Clinic, that experts are looking to for good ideas. I hope that the thousands of passionate and creative people working on this issue can shake off the politics and get this done, so that fear doesn’t have to become our permanent pre-existing condition.