In the next few weeks, Maine lawmakers will decide whether the state should accept federal funds under the Affordable Care Act to offer health insurance to uninsured Mainers, including thousands of women. If the measure to expand affordable health insurance in Maine fails during this legislative session, the consequences for many of our state’s female residents will be devastating.
According to a 2012 report from the National Women’s Law Center, 12 percent of adult women receive health care coverage through Medicaid. Nearly 70 percent of adults on Medicaid are women. Nationally, approximately 20 percent of women are uninsured. Just over half of uninsured women (53 percent) had incomes less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level and would qualify for Medicaid if all states participated in the expansion.
For many adult women, Medicaid provides an important protection against economic insecurity, but there are also several reasons why women are inherently at greater risk of an insecure retirement. Historically, women have been more likely than men to qualify for Medicaid because, on average, women have lower incomes. They are also more likely to fall into one of the program’s eligibility categories: for pregnancy, caring for a dependent child, being over 65, or having a disability.
For one thing, women are more likely to take time out of the workforce to care for children and ailing parents. According to a recent report issued by the AARP Public Policy Institute, the majority (67 percent) of caregivers in America are women. As a result, it is estimated that women have 12 fewer years in the paid workforce over their lifetimes. The time out of the workforce not only lowers women’s lifetime earnings and savings, but also lowers their ultimate Social Security and pension benefits. Nationally, it costs the average woman more than $324,000 in lifetime wages and benefits to care for an aging parent. The subsequent retirement savings loss substantially increases women’s risk of long-term economic insecurity.
Another challenge is that women typically are paid less than their male counterparts. In 2012, full-time working women aged 55 and older had median earnings that were 76 percent of older men’s median earnings. Additionally, employed women are more likely to work part time than employed men and less likely to participate in a pension plan. Women also tend to live longer than men and are more likely to live in poverty as they get older.
The NWLC report goes on to point out that low-income women are far more likely to suffer from ill-health and often experience trouble accessing care. While adults over 50 of either sex will have, on average, at least one chronic condition, according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, low-income women especially have much higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Leaving women uninsured without access to primary and preventive care jeopardizes their chances for health and financial security in later life. Considering that women are far more likely to be poorer than men as they age in part due to the employment disadvantages mentioned above, gaining access to affordable health care coverage has never been more important. Accepting the federal dollars already set aside for Maine under Medicaid expansion will provide an opportunity for low-income women in our state to proactively manage their health conditions. They will have access to important preventive care such as mammograms and regular checkups. By taking better care of themselves, they will be able to take better care of their children, ultimately benefitting the whole family.
We hope Mainers, especially women, will voice their opinion on this important issue by urging their legislators to expand affordable health coverage through Medicaid. Providing health care coverage to more Maine women makes sense both for the health of Maine residents and for the state’s economy: It is a common-sense decision and the right thing to do for women and for our families.
Carol Kontos of Windham is former state president of AARP Maine and a former legislator.