By Ann Moline
Thursday, February 8, 2001
Any efforts to reform Medicare, to address the prescription drug and long-term care needs of seniors must be measured by their impact on women. Quite simply, if reform doesn't work for women, it just doesn't work.
WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Older women today live in poverty at almost twice the rate of their male counterparts, spending 20 percent of their income on medical care and 30 percent on housing. They survive on half the income of their retired male counterparts, whom they outlive by an average of six years. The situation is stark and disturbing.
"Older women are the most vulnerable among us," said Eula Ossofsky, president of the Older Women's League, at a press conference announcing a new report, "The State of Older Women in America." It highlights the problems faced by the average older American women and the causes.
And the situation will not improve for their young and middle aged sisters without sweeping policy reform, says the league, a 20-year-old Washington-based advocacy and watchdog group.
Difficulties in retirement do not necessarily stem from a lifetime of poverty, said League Executive Director Deborah Briceland-Betts, emphasizing that all women, not just the currently poor, need to pay attention to their retirement. The spiral downward into elderly poverty can be traced directly to the country's continuing wage gap, she said.
"Even 35 years after passage of the Equal Pay Act, women still earn substantially less than men," she said, adding that working women also earn less because they also care for young children and elderly parents.
The average U.S. woman earns 73 cents for every dollar a man earns, African American women earn 63 cents and Latinas earn 53 cents.
Because women earn less, and often have greater caretaking responsibilities, they save less for retirement, resulting in an average retirement income that is less than half of what men can expect. "When seven in 10 women in America earn $25,000 or less a year, it can be awfully hard to put anything away," Briceland-Betts said. A lower earnings rate translates into lower social security benefits.
Pension plan structure works against women as well. Part-time workers, many of whom are women, usually do not receive such benefits. In most plans, workers must remain with a company for a certain number of years in order to become vested and take the plan's accrued savings with them when they leave. Since women often represent a more fluid part of the work force due to family demands, they lose out on a legitimately earned benefit, one that could make a huge difference in their old age.
The average woman leaves the workforce for 11.5 years--not always all at once--further complicating the vesting situation. "First, they care for small children. Then, they care for elderly parents. And finally, they care for a chronically ill spouse. While we may embrace these roles as the right thing to do for the family, women are simply paying too high a price," Briceland-Betts added.
At age 85, women constitute 71 percent of the Medicare population, according to the Older Women's League report. Jeanette Takamura, former assistant secretary of aging with the Department of Labor, said that lack of access to adequate health care contributes to an unstable retirement. Because women live longer than men do, they will be more prone to chronic illness.
"Women are quite literally the face of Medicare," said Takamura, a league board member. "This report shows. . .that we are disproportionately affected by the program's most obvious gaps in coverage." Among the most glaring: lack of prescription drug coverage and affordable long-term care options.
Many elderly women must chose between paying for medications and paying for other essentials. Indeed, the brutally cold weather currently gripping the nation's midsection and the rising cost of heating fuel means that even greater numbers of women must make some wrenching decisions. Many of them never before had to worry about such things. Should they decide to forego medicine, the impact is profound.
"They will need more and longer hospitalizations that Medicare may not cover. They need more care they cannot afford," falling further into the grip of poverty, explained Briceland-Betts.
Takamura emphasized that the need for prescription drug coverage is not just an issue for the poor. "Middle class women who have achieved a measure of financial security can find that high drug costs quickly undermine the re