Women in Poverty - Tales from the Recession's Front Lines

Part: 3

New Health Law Could Shield Women from Poverty

Monday, June 14, 2010

Medical debts send far more women than men into poverty and keep them there. If health reform is to offer any aid, it will have to provide women not just more health insurance, but comprehensive coverage as well.



(WOMENSENEWS)--One promise of the new federal health care law is that it will defend against the impoverishing effects of medical debt.

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"We learned a lot in Massachusetts about the importance of structuring insurance to make it more affordable and providing the comprehensive benefits people need," said Mark Rukavina, executive director of the nonprofit Access Project, a national health care research center affiliated with Brandeis University in Boston.

"Let's hope that the federal government and other states will incorporate these lessons in implementing the legislation, so that fewer people will say that the only thing worse than the illness was the debts it left behind."

This promise of health reform is particularly important for women, who are more likely to be sent into poverty by medical bills; women earn less than men and have fewer financial assets to tap.

In 2007, one-third of working-age women, compared to one-quarter of men, were either unable to pay for food, heat or rent; had used up all of their savings; had taken out a mortgage or loan against their home; or had assumed credit card debt because of medical bills, according to a study by the New York-based Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that studies health policy.

Women with low-to-moderate incomes were hardest hit, with 64 percent of those earning $20,000 to $40,000 struggling to pay bills for hospitals, physicians, prescriptions and medical devices.

The Access Project's Rukavina warns that medical insurance alone is no immunization against crushing medical debt.

Massachusetts' 2006 health reform law increased access and provided affordable insurance coverage for thousands of low-income people, he says. But it didn't solve the problem of medical debt, especially for those with inadequate employer-sponsored insurance. In 2008, he says 26 percent of Massachusetts adults with income under 300 percent of the federal poverty level ($32,508) had medical debt.

"These debts had a profound impact on people's lives," said Rukavina. "Everyone reduced their standard of living and many middle-class people spiraled down into poverty. For some individuals, medical debts compounded other financial problems, such as paying student loans or keeping up with their mortgages. Others ran up huge credit card debt, leaving them with little funds to pay for food, rent and other necessities."

For that reason, some health advocates say it's important that comprehensive coverage be kept in focus as the sprawling health reform law is implemented.

Many Questions Up in the Air

No one knows at this point, however, whether employer-sponsored insurance plans will protect vulnerable women because the enormous task of implementing the statute's more than 2,000 pages of provisions is in its early stages and won't be completed until 2014.

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Although the law provides that insurance companies to be required to spend most of the premiums they collect from employers and individuals on the services of physicians, nurses and other providers, the Department of Health and Human Services has not stipulated specific procedures that will be covered and how much employers and individuals will be expected to pay.

Court challenges might drag on for years because many of the provisions in the law are vague, the result of last minute, bitter compromises in Congress. Organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce are already lobbying Congress to amend the law.

Whatever the financial benefits of federal health reform--which starts taking effect in July with a new program for individuals with preexisting conditions who have not had insurance coverage for at least six months--women reach the starting line of this new program with a much heavier burden of unpaid medical bills.

There's nothing the new law does to change that--no provision to extinguish or lower existing bills and debts.

Debt Painful and Pervasive

"Medical debt is pervasive and painful for women," said Judy Waxman, vice president of health and reproductive rights of the Washington-based National Women's Law Center, which studies health, poverty and other issues that affect women and girls.

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Such a crucial subject for all women, those insured as well as the uninsured. Please continue to write about insurance reform as it affects the quality of life of all women, and therefore, their children.

Women's enews events

WOMEN IN POVERTY - TALES FROM THE RECESSION'S FRONT LINES SERIES

Series Overview

Poverty - Tales from the Recession's Front Lines

Part: 12

Welfare Recipients Enjoy Bright Spots of Support

Part: 11

Health Reform Reality Kicks In: Costs Still High

Part: 10

Welfare Job Rules Hit Women With Disabilities

Part: 9

Federal Job Funding Opens Doors for Single Mothers

Part: 8

Diapers Not Eligible for Food Stamps? Crazy!

Part: 7

U.S. Law Puts Credit Card Debt Before Single Moms

Part: 6

Need Welfare in Bronx? Come Back Tomorrow, Maybe

Part: 5

Hard Times Test Obama's Promise of More Medicaid

Part: 4

Marriage Loses Ground as Anti-Poverty Panacea

Part: 3

New Health Law Could Shield Women from Poverty

Part: 2

Scholarships Help Work Around Welfare Limits

Part: 1

At Welfare Hearings, Calls to Help Single Mothers