Sixty-five appears to be the magic age at which health outlooks for many Americans turn from grim to hopeful. According to a new study led by Dr. Joseph Shrager of Stanford, 65- to 69 year-olds in the U.S. have a statistically better chance of being diagnosed and surviving our most common cancers than in the five years prior. And it’s not just cancer; overall mortality rates also significantly improve at age 65. Americans aged 60-64 have the highest mortality rates compared to those in the same age range in peer countries — but once they reach 65, mortality rates drastically reduce.
Why does turning 65 mark such a visible transition point in preventing illness and death? The answer is simple: Medicare. At 65, older Americans receive the ultimate birthday present: the security of the nation’s foundational, fundamental, and popular federal program that’s been providing health care for the elderly for over half a century. These research findings highlight the unfairness of the current system for millions of older Americans between the ages of 60 to 64, many of whom are uninsured or underinsured just at the age that cancers and other life-threatening diseases are climbing. It’s the perfect storm, and it’s a deadly one.
That can change right now. Congress and the Biden administration must deliver on the historic opportunity to lower the eligibility age to 60 as part of the upcoming American Jobs and Families Plan. Doing so would be life-changing and life-saving for many. It would mean Medicare coverage for at least 23 million additional older workers while giving them the security of knowing they can finally address illness and injury without worrying about how they will pay for it.
Currently, up to 25 percent of those ages 60 to 64 experience being uninsured before turning 65. Even for those with a health plan, the high costs and low benefits of too many plans means that many are underinsured and therefore do not seek care even when they need it. While Medicare at age 65 allows for nearly cost-free treatment of serious health issues such as cancer, 60-64 year-olds largely rely on private health insurance plans that leave them with high deductibles, premiums, copays, and limited physician networks.
We all know that this forces many seniors to delay care, resulting in increased suffering and pain, advanced disease, and reduced cure rates for many diseases while waiting for the certainty of care that Medicare provides. Dr. Shrager’s recent research proves this.
The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the problem. Many older Americans lost their jobs and at the same time, their health insurance. As we come out of the pandemic, older workers are being hired at a lower rate than those in younger age groups. In addition to the financial stress of unemployment, these older workers are now faced with high health insurance costs. Others on the frontlines — from fire fighters to nurses — are exhausted and bone-tired but cannot afford to retire because they would then be without health insurance before reaching 65. The cruel irony is that on top of all this, the nature of age is that these seniors have more and more health conditions that must be addressed, including hearing and vision loss and increased need for dental care, which is critical to mitigating even worse disease.
It’s no wonder that expanding Medicare is overwhelmingly popular across the political spectrum. New polling shows a full 60 percent of likely voters — including a majority of Republicans — in favor of lowering the eligibility age. This is in addition to support from 17 national labor unions, local and national organizations.
Support for Medicare expansion is also high within Congress. More than 70 percent of the House Democratic Caucus — from moderates to progressives — signed on in support of lowering the age and expanding benefits. That number includes 15 lawmakers from the most vulnerable swing districts in the country. That’s because they know that expanding Medicare is one of the most necessary and populist things we can do.
All that’s left is for Congress to act. The deadly COVID-19 pandemic has given new urgency to the long overdue task of providing health care to millions more Americans and repairing our broken, for-profit health care system. It’s time for Congress and the White House to deliver on the promises that President BidenJoe BidenUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Schumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks GOP Rep. Cawthorn likens vaccine mandates to 'modern-day segregation' MORE made to voters across America. Expand Medicare, improve health care, and save lives.
Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalDemocrats seek to cool simmering tensions House panel to examine states' abortion restrictions, hear from three congresswomen who've had abortions This week: Democrats face mounting headaches MORE represents Washington’s 7th District and is chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Dr. Joseph B. Shrager is professor of Cardiothoracic surgery at Stanford University.