Could Expanding Medicare Eligibility Reduce Racial Disparities?

Doctor talking to patient during home visit

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Key Takeaways

  • A study found that expanding Medicare eligibility could reduce racial and ethnic disparities in health care.
  • In a $3.5 trillion spending plan, Democrats proposed to lower Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60.
  • Doctors note that racial and ethnic disparities can affect patients early in life, and expanding Medicare eligibility may help remedy these conditions sooner.

COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate based on race or ethnicity, but access to healthcare does. One step in reducing racial disparities in healthcare could be expanding medicare eligibility, which is part of a new Biden administration budget proposal.

Senator Bernie Sanders has long advocated for lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60 as part of the Biden administration’s $3.5-trillion soft infrastructure package. President Biden recently endorsed the proposal to lower the Medicare entry age in the package, but has not specified what the age would be.

Laolu Fayanju, MD, a primary care physician at Oak Street Health who treats Medicare patients and seniors, says many of his patients developed chronic conditions, like diabetes and hypertension, earlier on in life as a result of racial disparities in healthcare.

“There's disproportionate impacts of chronic conditions on communities of color, Black, and Hispanic communities, not because those communities are inherently more likely to be sick, but because access to health care throughout their lives is a bigger challenge,” Fayanju tells Verywell. 

Expanding Medicare is unlikely to stop these problems at the source, but would allow doctors to step in sooner to remediate these problems, he adds.

“Medicare expansion allows us to capture those conditions earlier on, maybe make a difference in those folks' lives, and prevent the natural history of these diseases from impacting this population,” Fayanju says.

A recent study found that Medicare coverage was associated with reductions in racial and ethnic disparities in insurance coverage, access to care, and self-reported health for eligible individuals. Lowering the eligibility age could further reduce these disparities and increase health equity, according to the study.

Several of Fayanju’s patients work jobs that require heavy lifting and physical exertion, leading them to develop conditions like osteoarthritis in their early 50s. Not everyone is capable of working 10 more years after developing early-onset conditions, and expanding Medicare eligibility to 55 would be more meaningful than the current proposal, Fayanju adds.

Poverty and other adverse circumstances put Americans of color at a higher risk for conditions like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and asthma than White Americans, according to Lisa A. Cooper, MD, MPH at Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center. African Americans are also more likely to die from health problems than white Americans. Health disparities are preventable differences in health conditions or health access experienced by socially disadvantaged groups and communities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

COVID-19 can infect people of all races and ethnicities but has had a disproportionate impact on Black Americans, who are more likely to contract and die from the virus, according to The Washington Post.

“This virus doesn't discriminate, and any way in which we can expand our ability to take care of more people, we should, as a society, make that our priority,” Fayanju says. “Nobody should be left out in the storm in the middle of a pandemic like this.”

Racial reckonings amid the pandemic and following the murder of George Floyd continue to highlight the need for an antiracist health system, he adds. 

“For people of all races, it was a reminder of the fact that disparities and racism still are alive and well in our country,” Fayanju says. “We can't deny that, but we can do more to improve the lives of people, especially in our Black and brown communities.”

“The pandemic has changed all of us,” Fayanju adds. “It's changed our perceptions of what the safety net needs to look like.” 

What This Means For You

Lowering the Medicare eligibility age could improve health equity for people of color. The current entry age of 65 could be lowered in Biden's new budget plan.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Wallace J, Jiang K, Goldsmith-Pinkham P, Song Z. Changes in racial and ethnic disparities in access to care and health among us adults at age 65 yearsJAMA Internal Medicine. 2021;181(9):1207-1215. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2021.3922

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health Disparities.

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.