For more than two decades, Celeste Thompson, 57, a home care worker in Missoula, Mont., had not had regular contact with a doctor — no annual physicals and limited sick visits. She also needed new glasses.
Like many others who work in the lower rungs of the health care system, she has worked hard to keep her clients healthy by feeding them, dressing them and helping them navigate chronic conditions.
But because of the low wages and the hourly structure of this industry — which analysts estimate is worth nearly $100 billion annually and projected to grow rapidly — workers like Thompson often don’t have health insurance. Many home health agencies, 80 percent of which are for-profit, don’t offer coverage, or their employees don’t consistently clock enough hours to be eligible. They generally earn too much to qualify for public aid but too little to afford the cost of premiums.
“It’s a social justice issue. We have a workforce that is the backbone of long-term [care] services, and they themselves don’t have coverage,” said Caitlin Connolly, who runs a campaign to increase home care wages at the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy organization.
In 2015, Montana opted in to the 2010 health law’s expansion of Medicaid, the state-federal low-income health insurance program. Thompson, who was making about $10 an hour, immediately signed up.
Her vision care was among the first things she focused on. She had not visited an eye doctor in nine years — a problem because her job includes keeping track of patients’ pill bottles and making sure they take the right medications. “I had to use a magnifying glass to see small print,” said Thompson, who now wears bifocals. Her doctor has since warned her she may need a stronger correction soon.
…Thompson is part of a large population of home-based caregivers who might be affected by such changes. From 2010 to 2014, about half a million of these workers gained new health insurance through Obamacare, estimates PHI, a New York-based nonprofit that researches this slice of the labor force and advocates for improved working conditions, in a March issue brief.
Most home care workers’ gains came from living in states that, like Montana, expanded Medicaid. But even with Obamacare in place, many home health workers — perhaps 1 in 5 — remain uninsured. By contrast, about 8.6 percent of all Americans lack coverage.
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