Long-Term Health Care ... as You like It

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 18, 2009 | Go to article overview

Long-Term Health Care ... as You like It


Byline: Stuart Butler, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Getting older sure beats the alternative, but most baby boomers shudder to think about paying the bills that usually go along with aging.

Just a few years in institutional housing can exhaust the financial resources of most middle-class Americans. Most boomers know someone whose parents have seen their entire savings gobbled up by long-term health care.

Today, a private room in a nursing home costs, on average, roughly $75,000 a year. And boomers can expect to spend quite a few years in these facilities. Today's 55-year-old man is likely to live to nearly 80. A 55-year-old woman can expect to live to nearly 83.

Do you think boomers' offspring will let the oldsters move in with them? Fahgeddaboudit!

Maybe Medicare will cover long-term nursing home costs? Wrong! It pays only for a limited stay after hospitalization and imposes other restrictions.

The solution many middle-class Americans embrace is to spend themselves into the poorhouse. They consciously draw down their savings - often transferring as much as possible to their kids - so they can qualify for long-term care benefits under Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor.

But the prospect of millions of boomers qualifying for Medicaid creates near panic among state and federal officials already facing huge budget shortfalls. Roughly a third of Medicaid spending already goes to long-term care. And that's about 40 percent of all long-term care spending in America.

Unfortunately, it's not all spent in optimal fashion. Instead of helping the elderly stay in their own homes with part-time care or help from family and friends, bureaucratic rules give preference to subsidizing care provided in the most expensive setting possible - nursing homes.

A recent AARP study concluded that, for what it costs to support just one elderly or disabled Medicaid patient in a nursing home, the program could support three patients in home and community-based settings. The horrible irony of Medicaid is that it forces taxpayers to pay more for the care the elderly prefer least.

Fortunately, some people have been thinking how to revamp our long-term care system to fix these design problems. Their goal: to save money while helping people live out their twilight years in their own homes.

This rethinking has three elements.

The first is to change Medicaid so states can redesign their programs to emphasize in-home delivery of long-term services rather than delivery in expensive institutional settings. …

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