Press-Republican

February 19, 2014

Older Americans early winners under health law

By CARLA K. JOHNSON AP Medical Writer
Associated Press

---- — 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.

NO SURPRISE

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.

‘HUGE SAVINGS’

The hours spent online and over the phone paid off for real estate agent Greg Burke and his beautician wife, Pat. The empty-nesters qualified for a tax credit that will lower their monthly health insurance premiums by nearly half.

The Burkes, from Akron, Ohio, are among the 38 percent of marketplace enrollees in the state between 55 and 64 years old. He’s 61 and had a knee replaced six years ago.

They will now spend $250 a month for health insurance, “a huge savings,” Greg Burke said. Their deductibles also dropped from $2,500 each to $750 each, meaning they will pay less out of pocket.

In Miami, licensed practical nurse Marie Cadet, who is 54, often works double shifts to make ends meet for herself and her 12-year-old daughter. She had been paying more than $150 a month for health insurance, with a $3,000 deductible. In effect, she paid most medical costs out of her own pocket, including about $80 a month for blood pressure medicine.

After choosing a plan from the marketplace, Cadet’s monthly payment dropped to $86 a month, with the government kicking in $300. Her deductible fell to a more affordable $900.

“Now,” Cadet said, “I’m not scared anymore.”