10 ways healthcare reform might help people with disabilities

What reform might do for a diverse, often overlooked group.          

by Laura Newman

Healthcare reform discussions frequently center on the changes anticipated for the general population. But people with disabilities — about 56 million in the United States — are generally left out of the healthcare reform picture.

That absence is not unusual. According to Lisa Iezzoni, MD, Professor of Medicine and Director of the Institute for Health Policy at Harvard Medical School, discrimination against people with disabilities stretches back thousands of years in human history. They “have been discriminated against, stigmatized, institutionalized, and hidden behind closed doors,” she says. The disability rights movement, which began in the 1970s with deinstitutionalization, made progress through the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Now, says Iezzoni, new health reform measures will offer people with disabilities important additional protections.

Healthcare reform has a variety of names, including the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), and Obamacare. All of the terms refer to the same federal statute that President Obama signed into law on March 23, 2010.

Slideshow: 10 Ways Healthcare Reform Might Help People with Disabilities

Click first slide to view.

The diversity of disability

Disability can occur in any body system or several systems at once. Sometimes, a disability is clear, but other disabilities can be “invisible.” The two most common types of disability center on mental health or musculoskeletal disturbances, according to the Social Security Administration. But disability covers a huge spectrum from developmental and congenital conditions to sensory, cognitive, and emotional differences. With the aging baby boomer population and the link between disability and age, the number of disabled persons is expected to grow considerably in the coming years. Many of them will be women, who tend to experience higher rates of disability than men.

Data on the healthcare experiences of people with disabilities are limited, says Iezzoni. Much of it comes from national surveys. What researchers do know is that people in the disabled community experience relatively increased rates of poverty, low education, unemployment, domestic violence (including against disabled men), and physical and attitudinal barriers to a good quality of life.

Barriers to care

Barriers to care might be the most important obstacles, literally and figuratively, that a person with disabilities encounters.  These barriers are among the issues that the new healthcare reform can address. In comparison with the nondisabled in the United States, people with disabilities receive fewer screening and preventive services. For example, women with disabilities have much lower rates of Pap testing and breast cancer screening and are less likely to be asked about reproductive health and contraception. “Part of this is attitudinal,” said Iezzoni, noting that doctors often behave as if sex and reproduction are just not part of the lives of people with disabilities.

Physical barriers also hinder access to care, and even medical equipment itself is often not adaptable for people with disabilities. For example, medical examination tables are very high, and women with disabilities may have difficulties getting onto one or maintaining the typical position for a pelvic exam. The same might also be true for mammography equipment.

“Women with disabilities are far less likely to get standard of care procedures for breast cancer and their outcomes are worse,” Iezzoni explains, referring to her own research. Among the disparities that health reform is intended to address are higher rates of mastectomy (complete breast removal), rather than lumpectomy (limited to removal of the tumor) for women with disabilities, lower rates of radiation therapy needed to produce disease-free survival, and higher death rates from breast cancer. Providing people with disabilities a chance to be more independent is also a pivotal issue for healthcare reform.

Trying to build in measures to improve access for people with disabilities is uncharted terrain, however, according to Iezzoni. That in itself might serve as an intangible reflection of what people with disabilities can encounter every day in a world without appropriate accommodations. It is also, though, terrain that the new healthcare reform might smooth out for the population with disabilities (see slideshow), lowering barriers and improving access … and quality of life.

Slideshow links

  1. Independence at Home Demonstration Program [PDF]
  2. Boosting long-term services and supports
  3. Aging and Disability Resource Centers


[Note: Iezzoni’s remarks are from a presentation she made at a
Raising Women’s Voices teleconference on the impact of health reform for women with disabilities. Image credits and copyright Double X Science unless otherwise noted. Front page and thumbnail image, Helen, who turned 94 the day this article appeared and who has lived with multiple sclerosis for 60+ years. Happy birthday!]

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6 thoughts on “10 ways healthcare reform might help people with disabilities

  1. Good summary, Laura. The issue of long-term services and supports is especially important so that individuals with disabilities can live in the community rather than institutions. It remains to be seen how scarce funding becomes given the Federal budget situation.

  2. I am so frustrated with Medicare. What kind of a safety net does not even cover prescription drugs? The end result is that I have to keep my old insurance, which is counted my primary, and physicians do not file for the co-pay (=balance that Medicare should pay, which means nothing has changed to make my health care more affordable. Why,why, why?

  3. This is a powerful presentation of the needs of the disabled not currently met, at all. The ACA needs to consider these for this population.

  4. Thanks for focusing on this neglected population. The more light is shone upon this issue, the more likely health care coverage for people with disabilities will improve.

  5. Thanks, Laura, for this cogent overview of the plight of the disabled and prospects for improving their lot under healthcare reform. As I was reading this piece, I couldn’t help being reminded of the mentally ill. Sure, de-institutionalizing them back in the 1970s was a good thing, but states and localities were ill-prepared to truly “mainstream” them. Social policy for people with both physical and mental disabilities is in sore need of deeper, more radical reform than the ACA promises to deliver.

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