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Expanding Medicare Eligibility Could Help Reduce Minority Health Disparities

New study finds that coverage gaps for Blacks and Hispanics narrow at age 65

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En español | Racial and ethnic disparities in access to health insurance and care are greatly reduced when Americans turn 65 and are eligible for Medicare, according to a new study published by JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The research, conducted by the Yale School of Public Health, reviewed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data from 2.4 million Americans ages 51 to 79. Their analysis found that insurance coverage for Latinos rose from 77 percent to 91 percent at age 65 and for Blacks it went from 86 percent to nearly 96 percent. Among White Americans, coverage increased by a much smaller percentage — from 92 percent to nearly 99 percent.

"Our findings also suggest that expanding Medicare may be a viable means to reduce racial and ethnic disparities and advance health equity by closing coverage gaps across the U.S.,” the report says. Americans must be 65 or have a disability to be eligible for Medicare, although there have been proposals to lower the age to 60.

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The study also found that while states with high levels of disparity between white and Black populations were economically, politically and geographically diverse, states that showed the most disparity in coverage between whites and Hispanics were concentrated in the South.

"Racial and ethnic disparities were not eliminated by Medicare,” the authors say, “supporting the view that disparities are shaped not only by policy decisions but also other social determinants of health, such as structural racism, that persist among elderly individuals."

Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the Medicare Made Easy column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.