CHEYENNE – Patricia Hemsley had not seen a medical professional for more than six years when she finally qualified for state Medicaid outside of Wyoming.
Moving to Wellington, Colorado, after giving birth to her son, James, Hemsley decided her family would need more resources than Wyoming could offer. Colorado expanded its Medicaid program in 2014 to cover low-income adults.
“At the appointment, I learned I had diabetes,” she said.
“The doctor said I was at a greatly increased risk of stroke and heart attack. If I hadn’t seen a doctor, I may have died pretty young.”
Hemsley dropped out of Cheyenne’s Central High in 2009 as an 18-year-old junior.
“I dropped out after my mom died,” she said.
“I had to start working full time to support my younger brother. I have since earned my GED, and my son even has health insurance through my job.”
Hemsley returned to Wyoming with better access to medical care, but a new study suggests her experience is not unusual.
Wyoming adults without a high school diploma are three times more likely to skip medical care than those with a college education, according to the University of Minnesota’s State Health Access Data Assistance Center.
More than 23 percent of residents without a high school education skipped needed medical care for financial reasons in 2016, compared with only 7.7 percent of adults in the state with a bachelor’s degree or higher. The research also found that nearly 48 percent of high school dropouts do not have a personal doctor.
“What we take away from this is, if you improve educational outcomes, you are likely to see a public health benefit,” said Caroline Au-Yeung, research fellow at SHADAC. “Since Wyoming does have some disparity between those with less education and those with more, there is definitely significant room for improvement.”
Roughly 8 percent of adults in Wyoming did not have a high school diploma in 2016, which is nearly half the national average.
Wyoming’s health-care disparities are similar to that of neighboring states, but western states show greater imbalance than those east of the Mississippi River.
There is a strong association among income, education and health care, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
American workers with a college degree are paid, on average, 74 percent more than those with a high school diploma, and income levels often determine access to health insurance. About 12 percent of state residents are not currently covered.
While many states offer programs for low-income residents, Wyoming Medicaid does not serve adults based on income alone, as the state did not expand Medicaid coverage in recent years, according to Kim Deti, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Health.
As is often the case, minorities are hit hardest by disparities. The Wyoming health department’s Office of Health Equity is working to minimize these barriers through education, training and research.
Lillian Zuniga, manager of the health equity office, said heightened awareness is part of the solution.
“This is a multidimensional problem,” she said. “It is about people’s environments and structural foundation. Minorities often have higher rates of chronic diseases and cancer, and this is a result of limited access to medical care.”
She said that while many Wyoming communities do have clinics that provide services on a sliding fee scale, the state could increase its efforts.