Working Sick: Lessons of Chronic Illness for Health Care Reform

19 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2009 Last revised: 23 Jul 2009

See all articles by Elizabeth Pendo

Elizabeth Pendo

Saint Louis University - School of Law


Although chronic illness is generally associated with the elderly or disabled, chronic conditions are widespread among working-age adults and pose significant challenges for employer-based health care plans. Indeed, a recent study found that the number of working-age adults with a major chronic condition has grown by 25 percent over the past 10 years, to a total of nearly 58 million in 2006. Chronic illness imposes significant costs on workers, employers, and the overall economy. This population accounts for three-quarters of all personal medical spending in the United States, and a Milken Institute study recently estimated that lost workdays and lower productivity as a result of the seven most common chronic diseases results in an annual loss of over $1 trillion dollars.

I am focusing on this significant and growing population as a challenge for employers and as a critical test case for current health care reform proposals. Many of the cost-control methods used by employer-based plans simply shift rather than lower health care costs. This disproportionately burdens people with chronic illnesses and creates long-term social and economic costs. The experiences and challenges of workers with chronic illness provide an opportunity to examine the larger framework of health care reform, not just the employer’s role in isolation, and they make clear that chronic illness is an issue that must be addressed by employers and policymakers.

Keywords: Health care, Health care policy, Health care reform, Health insurance, Chronic illness, Employment-based health insurance, Employee benefits, ERISA

Suggested Citation

Pendo, Elizabeth, Working Sick: Lessons of Chronic Illness for Health Care Reform. Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics, Vol. 9, p. 453, 2009, Saint Louis U. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2009-06, Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth Pendo (Contact Author)

Saint Louis University - School of Law ( email )

100 N. Tucker Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63101
United States
(314) 977-2767 (Phone)

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