CHICAGO -- For many older Americans who lost jobs in the recession, the health care quest has been one obstacle after another. They're unwanted by employers, rejected by insurers, struggling to cover medical costs and praying to reach Medicare age before a health crisis.
These luckless people, most in their 50s and 60s, have emerged this month as early winners under the nation's new health insurance system. Along with their peers who are self-employed or whose jobs do not offer insurance, they have been signing up for coverage in large numbers, submitting new-patient forms at doctor's offices and filling prescriptions at pharmacies.
Americans ages 55 to 64 make up 31 percent of new enrollees in the new health insurance marketplaces -- the largest segment by age group, according to the federal government's latest figures. They represent a glimmer of success for President Barack Obama's beleaguered law.
The Great Recession hit them hard; its impact lingers for some.
Aging boomers are more likely to be in debt as they enter retirement than were prior generations, with many having bought more expensive homes with smaller down payments, said economist Olivia Mitchell of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. One in 5 has unpaid medical bills, and 17 percent are underwater with their home values. Fourteen percent are uninsured.
As of December, 46 percent of older job seekers were among the long-term unemployed, compared with fewer than 25 percent before the recession.
These setbacks happened just as their health care needs became more acute. Americans in their mid-50s to mid-60s are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than other age groups, younger or older, accounting for 3 in 10 of adult diabetes diagnoses in the United States each year. Every year after age 50, the rate of cancer diagnosis climbs.
Miami family practitioner Bernd Wollschlaeger said he has noticed a recent surge in patients in this older age group. Many have untreated chronic conditions at an advanced stage. "Many have delayed necessary treatments due to costs, and expect a total and quick workup on their first visit," he said. They want referrals to specialists and tests such as colonoscopies and mammograms.
The abundance of older patients signing up is no surprise to the Obama administration, which conducted research last year that showed the "sick, active and worried" would be most responsive to messages urging them to seek coverage.
Signing up younger, healthier enrollees is seen as more difficult but crucial to keeping insurance rates from increasing. The administration said those age groups may put off enrolling until closer to the March 31 deadline.