Medicaid and the Life Course: An Intersectional Mixed-Methods Approach

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Health insurance coverage is associated with better access to health care and better health outcomes at every age. The United States does not provide universal health insurance, and most people pay for private insurance that is linked to their job. Individuals whose jobs do not provide insurance have three choices: to remain uninsured, to buy their own insurance, or, in some cases, apply for public health insurance. Select populations in the US may be eligible for public health insurance coverage through Medicare and Medicaid. Medicare provides essentially universal insurance coverage for adults over 65, and, although enrollment is required, there is no application to determine eligibility. Alternately, Medicaid is a means-tested program with a stringent application process and recertification requirements, and take-up rates vary greatly across the US. In some states, individuals who do not have insurance through their employer can apply for and enroll in Medicaid. Individuals with Medicare coverage can also apply for Medicaid. Individuals who are “dually eligible” for Medicare and Medicaid, represent a uniquely vulnerable population due to their age, income, health, and life course exposures to marginalization, poverty, and other risk factors.Medicaid provides an essential health safety net for people in the United States living in poverty, particularly for individuals with high health care needs and costs. Many adults over 65 will need Medicaid to cover health and long-term care costs, yet the process by which older adults gain access to Medicaid is complex and burdensome. Chapter 1 includes the results of a qualitative study of Medicaid enrollment among residents of a skilled nursing facility (SNF). In interviews with caregivers and staff at the Department of Social Services (DSS) in a large, urban county in North Carolina, I find that family members are often applying their aging relatives, and that these applicants have difficulty navigating the Medicaid application process. In addition, I find that prior exposure to institutional care settings facilitates knowledge about Medicaid eligibility and enrollment criteria. Finally, all respondents commented on the costs associated with SNF care. In particular, respondents with higher incomes noted the long process of becoming eligible, while lower income respondents noted the inevitability of running out of funds. This qualitative study illustrates the distinct ways that older adults, marginalized due to their health and socioeconomic status, engage with social welfare programs in the US. Building on the results from Chapter 1, in Chapter 2 I employ an intersectional, life course approach to assess predictors of Medicaid enrollment in later life. In Chapter 1 I hypothesize that, for institutionalized individuals, having living kin facilitates Medicaid enrollment. In addition, I hypothesize that individuals who have experienced health events requiring a skilled nursing facility (SNF) or other institutional care stay, as well as individuals who have low incomes are more likely to enroll in Medicaid as older adults. Using data from 10 waves of the Health and Retirement Survey I test each hypothesis, accounting for other dimensions of social and health disparities. Alternate to my expectations, individuals without living kin are more likely to enroll in Medicaid than those with living family members. Results from discrete-time logit models confirm the second hypothesis, that individuals who have had a short-term SNF stay are more likely to enroll in Medicaid over a two-year period. In addition, as expected from both interviews and Medicaid policy, income is the single greatest predictor of enrollment in late life. Enrollment odds, though, are distinctly racialized and gendered: Black and Hispanic individuals are more likely to enroll than whites, women are at a greater risk than men, and women of color are at the highest risk. In addition, having a higher income is less protective for marginalized racial and ethnic groups than for white populations. In the third chapter, I examine late life health as an outcome of structural, state-level variations in Medicaid policy. Although every US state is required to provide some form of Medicaid coverage to “Aged, Blind, and Disabled” adults, each state establishes distinct requirements and benefits. In this study I use 10 waves of restricted data from the Health and Retirement Survey (HRS) to examine late life consequences of state-level Medicaid generosity. Using multistate life tables, this study demonstrates that Medicaid generosity is associated with more years dually covered by Medicare and Medicaid. In addition, I demonstrate that racial and gender marginalization, low income, and specific late life health risks contribute to inequitable health and mortality outcomes in late life.






Petry, Sarah E (2023). Medicaid and the Life Course: An Intersectional Mixed-Methods Approach. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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