March 2, 2007

Economist Draws Correlation Between Education, Health Care

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Yesterday afternoon, Sandra Decker, an economist and researcher at the National Center for Health Statistics, gave Cornell students and faculty an eye-opening look at the issues and problems surrounding United States health care in her lecture, “The Policy and Legal Implications of Health Care Inequities.”

Decker began by sharing the research about differences in general health between socio-economic groups. According to Decker, poorer and less-educated communities are more likely to have a lower life expectancy and to categorize themselves as being less healthy. She stressed that there are many reasons for this fact, including a difference in the psychological and material conditions between low and high-income groups and differences in the overall healthiness in lifestyle. She admitted that access to medical care is also a possible issue, but that it is not the only issue.

The majority of Decker’s lecture focused on Medicare, which is the U.S. government’s publicly funded health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.

“The main question in my research,” Decker said, “is how much does Medicare eligibility at age 65 equalize disparities in the use of health services and in health between those who have been uninsured and the consistently insured?”

Decker set out to solve this problem by surveying women to find out if those in poorer socio-economic classes were more likely to get check-ups, have regular mammograms and be diagnosed early for breast cancer.

Her work showed that, in general, more women, especially low-income women, were increasingly likely to get mammograms and check-ups after they turned 65, and that there was also a drop, from 34 percent to 31 percent, in women with breast cancer being diagnosed too late. She also said that after the age of 65, there were significantly less women, in all socio-economic strata, who were not able to go to the doctor because of cost.

Decker’s graphs and tables also consistently showed how dramatically education affects the likelihood of having insurance or receiving regular medical care. Before age 65, about 25 percent of women were uninsured. Out of the uninsured women, only about 10 percent had received a high school degree or higher. Decker also showed correlations between a high level of education and the likelihood of receiving regular check-ups and mammograms.

The lecture was sponsored by the Pre-Law Undergraduate Society and The Triple Helix, a national organization promoting the understanding of the importance of science and technology in society and its impact on politics and law. Both organizations emphasized the importance of a lecture such as yesterday’s and of understanding the inequalities in health care and other institutions.

“There are legal institutions and policies that have huge impacts on the inequalities in society,” said Dan Hickman ’07, vice president of the Pre-Law Undergraduate Society.s “And it’s important for pre-law students to be aware of these inequalities.”

Viraj Mehta ’08, vice president of Triple Helix, said that this issue is relevant for our generation.

“We’re the ones paying into Medicare and Medicaid for the baby-boomers,” he said. “For the next presidential election, it’s going to be a very hot topic and hot button issue.”

Decker said that she believed the most problematic issue in terms of U.S. health care policies is a lack of sufficient funds for the severely needy and catastrophic cases.

“The problem is that you need voters to vote for these policies,” she said. “So you give a little money to everyone instead of a lot to the most needy. Most public money should be spent only on the very poor.”

Decker’s lecture helped to promote awareness about the problems of the healthcare system.

“I really liked it,” Jake Lewis ’09 said. “It’s hearing things like [this] that make me want to go out and try to do something to change some of these inequalities.”