This post originally appeared on the Center for Consumer Engagement in Health Innovation website.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) older adults face many of the same health and aging challenges other older adults face, but more pronounced. As a result, they are arguably more at risk if the incoming administration and Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without a replacement plan and/or makes significant and harmful changes to Medicaid and Medicare.
LGBT older adults face unique risks within the health care system due to the standard issues facing an aging population combined with their sexual orientation or gender identity, such as:
- Aging Combined with Discrimination: Similar to the older population in general, LGBT older adults face challenges with aging: declining health, diminished income, and the loss of friends and family. LGBT older adults, however, also face the added burden of actual or feared discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Many choose to go back into the closet for fear that caregivers will discriminate against them. Transgender adults, however, do not even have that option. Despite federal prohibitions on discrimination based on sex stereotyping and gender identity and the prohibition of discriminatory practices toward LGBT individuals based on health status – such as being HIV positive – built into the ACA, the sex stereotyping and gender identity protections are currently under attack in the courts, and LGBT older adults remain one of the most invisible, underserved and at-risk elder populations.
- Isolation from Society, Services and Supports: Studies show that LGBT older adults are twice as likely to live alone; half as likely to have close relatives to call for help; and more than four times less likely to have children to help them. Nearly one-in-four LGBT older adults has no one to call in case of an emergency. At the same time, studies document that LGBT older adults access essential services – including visiting nurses, food stamps, senior centers and meal programs – much less frequently than the general aging population.
- Lack of Access to Culturally Competent Health Care: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has found that LGBT older adults face additional health barriers because of isolation combined with a lack of access to social services and culturally competent providers. These barriers result in increased rates of depression; higher rates of alcohol and tobacco use; and lower rates of preventive screenings.
- Higher Rates of Poverty: LGBT older adults reflect the diversity of our nation in terms of gender, race and ethnic identity. But there is one critical statistic where they do not reflect the norm: they have much higher poverty rates and lower average household income than their straight and cis-gender counterparts. In fact, 35 percent of SAGE clients in New York City have annual pre-tax incomes below $10,000 and rely on Medicaid – a program with looming threats of block grants or per capita caps – to provide their medical care. An additional 35 percent subsist on annual pre-tax incomes of $20,000 or less and qualify for coverage under Medicaid expansion or could utilize tax credits to purchase insurance on the Marketplace. The Medicare-eligible segment of this population benefits from the ACA having lowered Medicare Part B premiums, the closing of the “donut hole” for prescription drugs, and payment and delivery reforms aimed at improving quality and the coordination of care for individuals with complex care needs.
- HIV: As of 2015, the CDC estimates that one in two people who are HIV positive in the United States are now over 50. Yet little attention and money is targeted towards prevention for this population. One of the free preventive services covered by the ACA is HIV screening, though recommended testing in the U.S. cuts off at age 64. As a result, older adults are much more likely to be dually diagnosed with HIV and AIDS if and when they are ultimately tested.
Because of higher rates of health disparities, un-insurance, poverty and a greater reliance on programs like Medicaid and Medicare – two programs that could be facing significant retooling and subsequent funding cuts in the coming years – the protections provided by these programs and enacted in the ACA are critical for improving the quality of life for older LGBT individuals.
As we enter an uncertain time, we believe that we must do more to honor and support the LGBT elders who fought the fight and paved the way for the recent advances we have seen on LGBT rights. The least we can do is ensure that this population still has access to the foundational supports provided by the ACA, Medicaid and Medicare.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.