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.

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Deborah Thorne, associate professor of sociology at Ohio University in Athens, says that single women raising children alone often fall into poverty because they are already struggling to put food on the table.

"Many fathers don't provide child support or include the children under their employer-financed medical insurance," she said. "A doctor's bill of $500 can wipe these mothers out because they have low wages and little savings."

Moreover, 62 percent of all bankruptcies in the United States in 2007 were linked to medical debts, according to a study by Thorne and researchers at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Health insurance offered little protection.

"Three-fourths of the 2,314 women and men in our study who filed for bankruptcy had health insurance at the onset of their illness," said Thorne. "Those with insurance reported an average of $17,749 in medical debts, compared to $26,971 for those without insurance and $22,568 for those who lost insurance during the course of their illnesses."

Women are at high risk for incurring medical debt as they often don't qualify for employer-paid insurance since they work part time or for companies that have less than 50 workers; these companies are not required to provide insurance.

Little Debt, Great Harm

"The most worrisome finding of our 2007 study of medical debts in California was that it didn't take much debt to harm people's lives," said Shana Alex Lavarreda, director of health insurance studies at the UCLA Center for Healthpolicy Research, which is affiliated with the School of Public Affairs of the University of California at Los Angeles. "Of the 2.2 million Californians with medical debt, 1.4 million owed $2,000 or less."

The study found that problems such as high co-payments can lead to medical debts and inhibit people from seeking medical attention.

Those with debts in the study by Lavarreda and her co-researchers at the center were twice as likely to delay or forego needed health care as those without debts. Delays were higher as the amount of debt increased. Forty-three percent of those with more than $8,000 in debt reported delays in obtaining care compared to those without debts.

"Nearly 40 percent had high deductibles, which made monthly premiums more affordable," said Lavarreda. "Unfortunately, these policies didn't protect individuals when they suffered a heart attack or developed cancer and had to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket until the insurance took effect."

High co-pays were also problematic, especially for individuals who had chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis and diabetes. These illnesses are more common in women and require frequent doctors' visits, medications and monitor tests.

As a result, inadequate insurance was a major reason why 1 in 7 working-age adults in California had medical debts in 2007, the study found.

"The problem has probably gotten worse in the last three years because California has been hard hit by rising unemployment," said Lavarreda. "That is why it is so important that the health reform statue be implemented to ensure that people not only have insurance but comprehensive coverage."


Sharon Johnson is a New York-based freelance writer.

For more information:

National Women's Law Center:

Access Project:

UCLA Center for Healthpolicy Research:

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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.


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