Liz Sheffield

Supporting the Health of Employees in Low-Income Areas

As health care costs continue to rise, securing and maintaining affordable health insurance for low-income adults and families has become a greater challenge. And the lack of access to low-income health insurance can have dire effects: U.S. News & World Report writes that one study found up to a 15-year difference in life expectancy between America’s richest and poorest citizens.

For employers to help, they must understand the health obstacles that residents of low-income areas face as well as what steps are available to help close the gap.

Barriers to Good Health in Low-Income Areas

Though the Affordable Care Act set out to improve access to health insurance for low-income adults, health care nonprofit foundation the Commonwealth Fund has found that high costs and the lack of subsidies in certain states contribute to the continuing health disparity. In fact, whether low-income patients are insured or not, they’re more likely to neglect care because tight budgets mean they can’t afford to pay for doctors’ visits or prescription medications, especially when costs like rent may be more pressing.

Even if they do want to seek out care, residents of low-income areas may face reduced access to care facilities and providers. The National Rural Health Association notes that there are only 13.1 physicians for every 10,000 people in rural areas, while the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the number of hospitals in major U.S. cities has dropped by almost 50 percent. And the problem only compounds if low-income individuals fail — by choice or by necessity — to take advantage of preventive care like screenings and immunizations, putting them at risk for more critical and expensive conditions down the line. Those who work in jobs without paid medical leave may also have a harder time making and keeping care appointments.

The potential chronic stress caused not only by these health risks specifically but also by financial worry in general can compound the issue, leading to unhealthy behaviors like smoking or taking a toll on the body and mind more directly.

Residents of low-income areas also face unique quality-of-life challenges, including limited access to exercise spaces outdoors or at affordable gyms and inadequate options for purchasing healthy food. The unavailability of high-quality food makes obesity another primary health concern for low-income areas, as the Food Research & Action Center reports: “Disparities in food access find that neighborhood residents with better access to supermarkets and limited access to convenience stores tend to have healthier diets and reduced risk for obesity.”

How to Support Employees in Low-Income Areas

Employees who live in low-income areas and struggle to take full advantage of their health insurance don’t suffer in a vacuum. Higher rates of illness can cause employers’ health care costs to rise, and the loss of productivity from absenteeism and presenteeism can be a blow to the bottom line.

To help address these issues, consider taking some or all of the following steps.

  • Build the right health plan. To offer effective low-income health insurance, look for plan options that speak to the particular problems mentioned above, including strong mental health services and telemedicine options that can connect patients to providers more conveniently and less expensively.
  • Offer useful tools. If your employees are trying to keep monthly premiums down by participating in a high-deductible health plan, make sure they have access to a health savings account to help them save.
  • Educate your employees. Instructional programs on financial wellness and health and well-being can give your employees both crucial information and the motivation to take proactive steps toward healthy choices. Teach your employees to be savvy health care consumers by encouraging them to review all costs before scheduling procedures and to ask about less-expensive alternatives like generic medication over name-brand prescriptions or therapies over surgeries.
  • Accommodate health care needs. Give your employees the time they need to take care of their health, whether that’s keeping doctors’ appointments or exercising during the workday. If possible, consider making healthy choices easier by bringing them into the workplace — for example by stocking healthy snack alternatives or organizing voluntary on-site health checkups.
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The Commonwealth Fund noted that many low-income adults distrust medical providers and the wider health care system, so supporting your low-income employees starts with making a sincere effort to understand their challenges and show that you care.

This content is provided solely for informational purposes. It is not intended as and does not constitute legal advice. The information contained herein should not be relied upon or used as a substitute for consultation with legal, accounting, tax and/or other professional advisers.

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