It’s a historic week for Medicare and Medicaid – and for American women.  On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Chiquita Brooks-LaSure as the new administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  She becomes the first Black woman to head the agency that administers health care for more than 100 million Americans, including and especially seniors.

This is a milestone for women striving for greater retirement security, because retirement security depends on access to affordable, quality health care.  Brooks-LaSure, who served as a health care policy official under President Obama, will bring a lifetime of experience and perspective to her role.  Who better to lead CMS at a time when all women, but especially women of color, lag behind men in retirement security? (Visit Eleanor’s Hope for more information on gender equity issues affecting working and retired women.)

Brooks-LaSure represents a welcome change of direction for CMS.  She replaces President Trump’s CMS chief, Seema Verma, who left the job when Joe Biden was inaugurated on January 20th. Verma – a corporatist conservative idealogue – spent four years undermining traditional Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act.  She was anything but an ally for older women.

By comparison, Brooks-LaSure was “championed by allies on Capitol Hill, including the Congressional Black Caucus,” according to the Washington Post.  She no doubt will be a powerful advocate for President Biden’s legislative efforts to boost health care access – especially for older Americans.  President Biden campaigned on a platform of expanding not only Medicaid, but Medicare – a key goal for the National Committee and our members and supporters across the country.

These programs are crucial to the retirement security of millions of women. Nearly 60 percent of low-income seniors who receive Medicaid benefits are women.  Older women depend on Medicaid more than older men because they have a longer life expectancy, less income, higher poverty rates and multiple chronic conditions that require long-term services.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) allowed states to greatly expand Medicaid coverage, which also benefitted women with incomes below 138% of the federal poverty line. In expanding Medicaid, the ACA extended a health care lifeline to women of color, single mothers, and women without a high school degree who may not have previously qualified for benefits.

Medicare is another crucial program that can benefit from LaSure’s leadership. The Kaiser Family Foundation calls it “a critical source of health insurance coverage for virtually all older women in the U.S.”

“Medicare helps to make health care more affordable for older women at a time in their lives when they are most likely to have multiple health problems that require ongoing and often costly medical treatment.  Today, one in five adult women relies on Medicare for basic health insurance protection. In fact, women comprise 57% of the Medicare population.” –  Kaiser Family Foundation

President Biden’s new Medicare and Medicaid administrator no doubt will work to strengthen the two programs – along with the Affordable Care Act – after four years of Trump administration attempts to weaken them. President Trump proposed cutting Medicare and Medicaid by over $1 trillion dollars in successive White House budget blueprints. His administration, under CMS chief Verma, encouraged states to impose work requirements on low-income Medicaid beneficiaries – and promoted private Medicare Advantage plans over traditional Medicare.

Brooks-LaSure no doubt will be a key player in the administration’s efforts to strengthen and expand Medicare and Medicaid.  There is much work to be done, including adding hearing, vision, and dental benefits to traditional Medicare, and lowering prescription drug prices that sometimes force seniors to choose between paying the rent or paying for medicine. The appointment of Brooks-LaSure does not ensure instant progress – but it’s a meaningful start.  After four years of enduring an antagonist in the CMS director’s chair, older women will finally have a champion.