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February 19, 2014

Older Americans early winners under health law

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.

“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.

GREAT RECESSION IMPACT

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.

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