POLITICS OF OLD AGE: Medicare Reform Focuses on Women
Since "old age is largely a country of women," women are becoming both the "target and symbol" in the debate over Medicare and Social Security, reform, the New York Times reports. As women tend to live longer and have more chronic health problems, they become increasingly more dependent on "safety-net programs." According to a recent Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation report, women ages 65-74 account for 54% of all Medicare beneficiaries, and the percentage steadily increases with age; women ages 75-84 account for 61% and women ages 85 and older account for 71% of all Medicare beneficiaries. In addition, more than 67% of nursing home residents and users of home health-care services are women. The Kaiser report also found that 17% of women on Medicare report incomes below the poverty level, compared to 11% for men. Democratic Pollster Celinda Lake says, "Women perceive [Medicare reform] as a twofold issue: One, they're more likely to have the problems of old age because they're likely to live longer. And second, whatever caregiving responsibilities exist, women expect to fall squarely on their shoulders," Lake added. "When you start talking about the fact that women live longer, are paid less, are far less likely to have pensions with their work and [are] far more likely to carry the responsibility for caregiving in our families, every woman in the audience starts to nod," said Clinton Administration official Ann Lewis.
The Feminization of American Politics?
This provides "a clear political rationale" for the bipartisan positioning of Medicare and Social Security reform as women's issues, the Times reports. Democratic women in the Senate have been meeting on the issue since last year, and have devised a "checklist of necessary ingredients" for reform, including saving the program as "a guaranteed benefit." Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT) says that the GOP has been the "lead party" in protecting older women's financial security by proposing tax credits for care-givers and educating the elderly about long-term insurance. And women's advocacy groups have been organizing to protect women's interests in the health care reform debates. Joan Entmacher of the National Women's Law Center says, "The reason you're hearing more about this now is the programs that women ... rely on for old age, Social Security and Medicare, are under new strains." The pharmaceutical industry also has gotten involved, with a special interest in the battle over Medicare coverage for prescription drugs. Fearing the eventual switch to price controls, a new advertising campaign paid for by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America introduces "Flo," an elderly woman who expresses concern about a "more intrusive Government plan," that would "put bureaucrats in charge of [seniors'] medicines." The Times reports that both sides agree that "Flo is a symbol of what's to come." Judith Lichtman, president of the advocacy group National Partnership for Women and Families, said, "We're all talking to women on these issues. They are, we are," (Toner, 9/13).