Broader Medicare could reduce disparities

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lowering the eligibility age for the federal Medicare health insurance plan for the elderly could reduce racial health disparities and help blacks and Hispanics live as long as whites, U.S. researchers said on Monday.

Their study of more than 6,000 middle-aged and elderly Americans showed that blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar control all improved when people hit the age of 65 and became eligible for Medicare.

“We found some important indicators that universal health insurance may reduce persistent disparities we’ve seen for far too long in Americans from different racial or ethnic groups,” John Ayanian, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, who worked on the study, said in a statement.

The researchers looked at a national survey of more than 12,000 people who had extensive medical exams.

“We studied adults age 40 to 85 years who had at least one of the following conditions: diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, or stroke,” they wrote in their report, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Differences as soon as these people hit 65 were clear, they found. “With near-universal Medicare coverage after age 65 years, differences in systolic blood pressure, hemoglobin A1c levels, or total cholesterol levels reduced substantially,” they added.

Hemoglobin A1c is a measure of long-term blood sugar control.

“In particular, because black, Hispanic, and less-educated adults are much more likely to be uninsured or underinsured, expanding insurance coverage may be especially beneficial for these groups.”

Congress and President Barack Obama have pledged some kind of healthcare reform this year. Obama has proposed a mixture of public and private plans but says he will leave the details up to Congress.

The study was paid for by the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund. It has been an advocate of universal coverage, having conducted studies that show the U.S. healthcare system is the most expensive, per capita, in the world and that 46 million Americans have no health insurance.

Statistics also clearly show that blacks, Hispanics and other ethnic minorities die sooner, have poorer control of blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol than whites, and get treated later for certain forms of cancer -- even when they have the same income, private insurance and education levels.

“The results of this study make it clear that guaranteeing access to affordable insurance for all Americans is the essential first step toward a high performing health care system and a healthier America,” Commonwealth Fund president Karen Davis said in a statement.

Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Julie Steenhuysen