Obama administration official addresses LGBT elders in Chicago
Attendees of the weekly SAGE lunch hour at the Center on Halsted lined up for their meals a bit earlier than usual on Tuesday, Aug. 31, as a special guest-Dr. Howard Koh of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-was invited to speak about how the health care reform bill signed into law earlier this year effects LGBT seniors.
During his 15 minute speech, the former physician and Harvard professor who is the assistant secretary for health at HHS emphasized his hope the bill will increase both health security and access to care for both insured and uninsured Americans both insured and uninsured. Koh touched on the new regulations' allowance for patients to appeal health plan decisions made by insurance companies, as well as increased consumer assistance funding. He targeted 2014 as the year when the bill's wide-sweeping provisions, including an expansion of Medicaid eligibility, would fully take effect.
"It's really critical that we all understand our good health is a gift and we need to protect [that gift] every day and maximize that gift," Koh told the audience of approximately 60 people who filled the John Baran Senior Center. "We are entering extraordinary times in our nation's history through the transformative opportunity offered by [the act]."
Koh also addressed efforts to increase aide to early retirees, who have often seen their benefits cut by employers at a time before they qualify for Medicare. He further explained an increased emphasis on funding preventative care, such as HIV and cancer screenings through Medicare, as well as a renewed effort to reduce funding abuse and fraud within the program. He directed the audience to visit www.healthcare.gov for more information on the bill.
Speaking specifically to LGBT-specific concerns, Koh referenced the national AIDS strategy the Obama administration released earlier this year and the hospital visitation memorandum as two important steps in protecting the health of the community beyond the health care bill. He also mentioned HHS' new LGBT coordinating committee, a group reportedly set to commission an unprecedented study on LGBT health disparities.
After his speech, Koh faced pointed questions from the audience on several topics. These included concerns regarding the cost of long-term care, the bill's lack of a public option and unclear federal policy on whether insurance companies should cover a transgender person's transition.
"While healthcare reform has increased accessibility, how has it or how has it not increased affordability for the average citizen?" one audience member pointedly asked Koh.
At times dodging some of the questions' specifics, Koh stuck to a familiar message-of the importance of one's health and the transformative promise of the legislation-eliciting some frustrated comments from those in attendance. Nonetheless, Koh's pronounced outreach to the LGBT community is unprecedented when compared to previous administrations.
Under the Obama administration, HHS has taken other proactive steps in addressing the needs of LGBT elders, including $900,000 in funding over three years of SAGE's first-ever National Technical Assistance Resource Center for LGBT Elders in New York. In Chicago, SAGE also recently received a sizable grant of $475,000 earlier this year. That funding will be directed toward increased HIV prevention messages for LGBT elders and competency training for health care providers.
Serena Worthington, newly appointed from the Center on Halsted's senior director of public programs to the SAGE national director of community advocacy and capacity-building, previously told EDGE the grant money speaks volumes for the administration's level of support for the aging LGBT community's unique needs.
"This grant is going to go a long way in the city, helping the senior care infrastructure prepare for this coming wave of LGBT seniors - there is a gay, aging boom coming," said Worthington. "And it's a generation that's not going back into the closet. These are federal dollars and I don't think you can underestimate the power of this message, from both a city and national context."
Ever-increasing research on LGBT elders outlines the long-term effects of a lifetime of social stigma, including increased risk of isolation, financial hardships and other barriers to emotional and physical health. SAGE and other groups emphasize the importance of creating social opportunities and encouraging advocacy among the aging gay and lesbian population as an important component of sustained long-term health.
A Gallup poll earlier this summer indicated seniors as a whole are still not sold on Obama's health care reform. The most recent polling from June saw 60 percent of people 60 years and older describe the bill as a "bad thing." Another recent poll, conducted by Harris Interactive for the National Council on Aging last month, found seniors also remain confused or unaware about important aspects of the legislation.