Focus on Research
Penn State Intercom......February 7, 2002

Analysts propose
pre-Medicare insurance plan

By Barbara Hale
As Congress and the Bush administration get set to overhaul Social Security and Medicare, University health policy analysts have published a plan to address the health insurance dilemma those age 62 to 64 face when they're too young for Medicare but don't have access to an employer's health plan.
Pamela Farley Short, professor and director of the Center for Health Policy Research, led the study. She said, "Some Americans will lose coverage through their employer's health plan if they retire at 62, the age at which they first qualify for Social Security. Others already lack health insurance at 62 because they stopped working or have jobs that don't provide coverage. Many cannot afford the high cost of an individual policy at that age. Being uninsured is a particularly significant problem among people 62 to 64 because the risk of serious and costly illness is greatest for older age groups." RESEARCH_Short
With support from the Commonwealth Fund Task Force on the Future of Health Insurance, Short and co-authors Dennis Shea, professor of health policy and administration, and Paige Powell, a doctoral student, developed a solution.
The researchers propose that everyone over age 62 be allowed to purchase coverage through Medicare at a community-rated premium. For individuals and couples with low lifetime earnings, they propose government-subsidized vouchers that could be used either to buy into Medicare or to pay for private health insurance. To help everyone else save for health insurance after age 62, when premiums are high because of the greater likelihood of large claims for older policyholders, the researchers propose tax-free medical insurance savings accounts.
"Currently, non-group insurance, which is very costly, is more prevalent among the pre-Medicare population than any other age group. We propose giving all people 62 to 64 access to a source of insurance that achieves some of the economies of scale offered by large employer plans," said Short. "We favor Medicare over new sources of insurance because this age group is only three years away from enrolling in Medicare anyway."
The authors noted that their proposal does not favor either work or retirement for people age 62 to 64 since both workers and early retirees would be eligible for pre-Medicare vouchers and savings accounts. However, they added that, by providing all older Americans with access to group insurance and by basing subsidies on lifetime earnings, their proposal will encourage some people to retire earlier.

Barbara Hale can be reached at


Northern 'rainforest' soaks up wastewater
from University treatment plant

By Jeff Mulhollem
For nearly two decades the University has recycled all its wastewater by irrigating farm crops and forest areas. Now, thanks to tree research done in the College of Agricultural Sciences, the system will perform better.
"We have created a sort of northern rainforest," according to Todd Bowersox, professor of silviculture, a branch of forestry dealing with the care and development of forests. In the last seven years he has developed a plant community that can continue to absorb much of the 2 inches of wastewater that is sprayed on it every week of the year.
Normal rainfall in central Pennsylvania is 40 to 45 inches annually. The University sprays an additional 104 inches onto the wastewater recycling area near Toftrees in Patton Township. The irrigation field is part University land and partly owned by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, known as State Game Land 176.
By replacing the typical central Pennsylvania forest of red oak, black oak, red maple and hickory -- trees adapted to normal rainfall and acidic soils -- with thirstier species that prefer less acidic soils higher in nutrients, such as bigtooth aspen, quaking aspen, silver maple, sycamore and green ash, Bowersox created a natural demand for wastewater.
The wastewater is disinfected and most of the nitrogen is removed at the University's sewage treatment plant before being pumped 2.5 miles to the 520-acre irrigation area. Overhead sprinklers dispense about 1 billion gallons of wastewater annually, which filters down to groundwater supplies.
The wastewater recycling system is critical to operation of the University, which has just a two- to four-hour storage capacity for wastewater, according to Bowersox. "So we must keep spraying," he said. "We had to develop a plant community that could soak up the water."
The research began in 1995 when Bowersox observed that the existing trees in the irrigation area were deteriorating. There were no new tree seedlings and the overstory trees were beginning to die. When he analyzed the soil, he found it had changed since wastewater spraying began. Previously, the soil was acidic and lower in nutrients. Now it was less acidic with more nutrients from the wastewater.
"We changed things from conditions of low fertility and low rainfall to high fertility with much greater precipitation," explains Bowersox. "Clearly, we needed to find some species that would adapt to the new conditions.
"Our new tree-dominated community has a better opportunity to maintain a healthy, diverse forest that is necessary to recycle the University's wastewater," Bowersox said.

Jeff Mulhollem can be reached at


Structured time

may be linked

to child development

The way a 10-year-old child spends his or her free time is closely related to how well-adjusted that child is now and will be in two years, a recent study revealed.
Devoting more of that free time to structured and supervised activities, such as hobbies and sports, appears to enhance a child's academic, emotional and behavioral development at this age. Spending more time playing outdoors and hanging out, in contrast, appear to detract from development, the study found.
These findings came from research conducted by a University team including Susan M. McHale, professor of human development and family studies, and her colleagues, Ann C. Crouter, professor of human development and family studies, and Corinna Tucker, who earned her doctorate at the University. McHale noted that American children enjoy a tremendous amount of free time -- up to 50 percent of their waking hours, by some estimates. Previous researchers have speculated that the way this time is spent could strongly influence a child's emotional, academic and behavioral development.
McHale's research indicates they were right, and suggests why. Her team monitored how 198 white, middle- and working-class children in the fourth and fifth grades, averaging 10 years of age, spent their free time. The researchers also examined three indicators of development -- school grades, depression levels and parental reports of bad conduct -- at the same time as they monitored free-time activities. They looked at the same developmental markers two years later.