Commonwealth shows ‘stark’ care divide

September 18, 2013 in Medical Technology

Access to affordable health care and quality of care vary greatly for low-income people based on where they live, according to a new Commonwealth Fund scorecard.

The scorecard provides the first state-by-state comparison of the healthcare experiences of the 39 percent of Americans with incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $47,000 a year for a family of four and $23,000 for an individual. Low-income people account for at least 25 percent of total state populations, and as much as nearly half (47 percent) in some states — including Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico.

The report also compares the healthcare experiences of those with low incomes to those with higher incomes — over 400 percent of poverty, or $94,000 for a family of four — and finds striking disparities by income within each state. Yet the wide differences by geography often put higher-income as well as low-income families at risk. The report finds that higher-income people living in states that lag far behind are often worse off than low-income people in states that rank at the very top of the scorecard. For example, low-income elderly Medicare beneficiaries in Connecticut and Wisconsin are less likely to receive high-risk medications than are higher-income elderly in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

[Infographic: Bridging the income divide in healthcare]

The stark differences in healthcare access, quality, and outcomes detailed in the report add up to substantial loss of lives and missed opportunities to improve health and quality of care. According to the Scorecard, if all states could reach benchmarks set by the leading states for their more advantaged populations:

  • An estimated 86,000 fewer people would die prematurely each year.
  • Seven hundred and fifty thousand fewer low-income Medicare beneficiaries would be prescribed potentially dangerous medications.
  • Tens of millions of adults and children would receive needed preventive care like vaccines, check-ups and cancer screenings.
  • Nearly 9 million fewer low-income adults under age 65 would lose six or more teeth because of tooth decay, infection or gum disease.
  • Thirty million more low-income adults and children would have health insurance coverage, reducing the number of uninsured by half.

“We found repeated evidence that we are often two Americas, divided by income and geography when it comes to opportunities to lead long and healthy lives. These are more than numbers,” said Cathy Schoen, Commonwealth Fund senior vice president and lead author of the report. “We are talking about people’s lives, health, and well-being. Our hope is that state policymakers and healthcare leaders use these data to target resources to improve access, care, and the health of residents with below-average incomes.”

David Blumenthal, MD, former national coordinator for health information technology, who is now president of the Commonwealth Fund, sounded an optimistic note.

[See also: Former ONC chief Blumenthal to lead Commonwealth Fund.]

Improvement is clearly possible, he says, citing expanding healthcare coverage and innovation.

“The Scorecard’s startling findings show us where our bright and weak spots are when it comes to providing health care to millions of Americans living on modest or low incomes,” Blumenthal said in announcing the scorecard’s findings. “And the timing is important. We are at an unprecedented moment in the history of our nation. We have the potential to raise the bar, unite the country, and realize the promise of a more equal opportunity to thrive by expanding health care coverage and innovating to find the most effective ways to deliver high-quality, safe care for everyone.”

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