Older workers will work longer to keep health coverage. But even as they do so, they’ll confront a dwindling supply of medical specialists.

Watson Wyatt
(WW) found that people over 50 years of age who receive health benefits from employers and don’t expect to receive these benefits in retirement are 16.5 percentage points less likely to retire than people who have health coverage from another source (such as a spouse’s health insurance plan, Medicare/Medicaid, COBRA).

In its report, Predictive Factors for Retirement Timing, WW identifies the main factors influencing when Americans will retire, including health and non-health considerations. The key findings are that:

1. Increases in wealth increase the probability of retiring, but don’t count out people postponing retirement if their earnings prospects are good at the expected retirement age.

2. People with defined benefit plans are more likely to retire than those with defined contribution plans. DB plans may represent a more secure retirement income.

3. Business cycles influence the probability of retirement. This is a corollary to point #2, where DC plans face risks of stock market fluctuations. If people enrolled in DC plans perceive their 401(k)’s, for example, have declined in value, they are more likely to put off retirement until they feel more ‘flush.’

4. Access to health insurance is a big determinant on the timing of retirement, of course.

But even with health insurance, the retiree will face a deficit of health care specialists. A poll from Zogby conducted on behalf of the American System for Advancing Senior Health (ASASH) found that 7 in 8 Baby Boomers believe that specialty training in dealing with geriatrics and aging is important for their physicians, but the Boomers are having a hard time finding this sort of doctor.

Women in particular believe this kind of expertise is critical for their health maintenance, yet only 1 in 4 said they perceive their health has suffered because they did not have access to such a physician.

An intriguing finding is that about half of people 55 and older said they would seek a different health provider to achieve better outcomes. 1 in 2 said they could get better care than they are now receiving.

This challenge was discussed in the IOM report I blogged about here in my post, Home care and garbage collectors.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:
“We are seeing the Baby Boomers use the Internet to take a much more activist role in almost every aspect of their lives,” according to John Zogby, pollster. Zogby points to the Internet playing a key role in educating and empowering people.
One in 3 older Americans said they need more help with their health decisions, and 71% said they want to be able to find more information about their own health care. 9 in 10 older Americans want to be in control of their health decisions.

One-half of older people believe they themselves are in the best position to help improve the quality of their health.

These two polls together paint a picture of an engaged older American, in touch with the fiscal and health realities of retirement in the U.S. Based on these data, it appears that Boomers are not in denial about the tough choices ahead. The motivation to work longer for health may engender motivation to stay well, longer. It’s never too late to engage in healthy behaviors. Perhaps this lightbulb moment in Boomers’ lives will drive people in the 50s and beyond to get real about work, health, and wellness. There will be opportunity for providers and organizations to support this population in living better, longer, through services, information, and support.