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Medicare's Role in Reducing Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities

Medicare makes a vital contribution to reducing disparities in access to medical care among its beneficiaries. Upon reaching age 65, virtually all Americans—rich and poor, minority and white—become eligible for Medicare, and minorities under age 65 constitute a disproportionate share of those who qualify for Medicare on the basis of a long-term disability. All beneficiaries are eligible for the same package of benefits. And the vast majority of health care providers and institutions participate in Medicare, which helps ensure that all beneficiaries have access to services.

Marked disparities nonetheless persist in health care among Medicare beneficiaries, although disparities in the use of health care services by race and income have diminished since the program’s implementation. The 2002 Institute of Medicine report Unequal Treatment found sizable racial and ethnic disparities in health care usage and outcomes among Medicare beneficiaries, even after adjusting for socioeconomic differences and other health care access-related factors. Minority beneficiaries also fall short of whites on many measures of health status. Blacks, for example, have a shorter life expectancy at age 65 than whites, and black beneficiaries are more likely than whites to have chronic conditions, such as hypertension or diabetes. Although many outcomes (such as life expectancy at age 65) have improved for minority beneficiaries in recent years, the same outcomes have also improved for whites, so that the relative disparity has actually increased.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which administers Medicare, has recently undertaken a number of initiatives aimed at reducing disparities. Although these steps are helpful, a report by a National Academy of Social Insurance study panel concludes that a strengthened, multi-pronged strategy will be necessary for Medicare to realize its full potential in reducing racial and ethnic health disparities.

For more information on Medicare and disparities, see:

The official Medicare website is