By Jeffrey Lewis
Each day more and more middle-class families are faced with the same economic challenge: how to simultaneously pay their bills as prices rise for everything from food to gasoline, and still put something away for their parents’ future long-term health care needs.
This challenge is no more and no less than a source of future economic terror for the beleaguered American families championed by the Occupy Wall Street movement, many of which are completely without health care insurance themselves. That dire situation will only worsen as the largest generation in U.S. history – the 76 million Baby Boomers – contines to retire and begins to enter our nation’s flawed system of long-term care.
With nursing home costs routinely topping $5,000 a month, the stark reality is that access to affordable comprehensive long-term care coverage remains elusive for the vast majority of people who will need it. The present system is stacked against the middle class, because it’s designed to drain the fruits of a parent’s labors before they qualify for government coverage, leaving nothing behind for the children of the 99%.
One alternative is to find a way to care for more elderly Americans at home by expanding our nation’s adult day care and home health care programs.
This expanding health crisis is one of many societal challenges being pushed into the public spotlight by the Occupy Wall Street movement as it gains greater strength by speaking to real issues impacting real Americans every day. While the long-term care crisis may not be dinner table conversation for every family, some of the Occupy Wall Street followers have likely grown up watching this tragedy unfold.
With the number of Americans older than 65 expected to more than double over the next generation — increasing from 34 million in 2000 to 70 million in 2030 — the long-held maxim that the only sure things in life are death and taxes now has another component. The truth is that most 21st-century Americans who surpass the age of 65 will eventually confront the need for comprehensive long-term care.
The Baby Boomer generation is comprised of more than 76 million Americans who were born between 1945 and 1964. That’s 24% of the nation’s 314 million population. The prospect of all of them finding a nursing home bed are remote.
The staggering costs of nursing home care today swamp any middle-income family’s ability to cope. Daily care averages $168 — almost $60,000 per year — a burden that can easily bankrupt all but the wealthiest families. Many elderly couples who are coping with one spouse’s need for the 24/7 skilled care of a nursing facility while the other spouse is capable of living independently often find their income and savings quickly depleted.
Sadly, this frequently leads to both spouses being institutionalized and neither living as long nor as happy a life as they — or their families — anticipated. Incredibly, the more affordable and humane alternative — home and community care — remains an unrealized dream.
Why can’t our nation resolve this painful reality, which confronts almost everyone in our lifetimes, whether as a spouse, supporting family member or caretaker?
As a nation, we need to do more.
With the leading edge of the baby boom generation now on the cusp of retirement and prescription drug and long-term care costs certain to wreak havoc with even the best-laid retirement plans, it is critical that we ask all presidential candidates this question: What is your strategy for creating a comprehensive long-term care plan for elderly and disabled Americans?
Now is not a time for the escapist mentality of another national commission or super congressional committee. Instead, Americans want honesty.
Is the solution a public–private partnership?
Must every America buy long-term care insurance and hope the company is still around in 20, 30 or 40 years?
These questions present a test for politicians to demonstrate real leadership and respond to the economically vexing challenges that long-term care represents. Long-term care has no political boundaries; it is color blind and gender neutral.
The 2012 election presents a historic opportunity for voters to demand that candidates put forth viable solutions and detailed programs, not just half-baked plans and hollow rhetoric. Leadership is not about slogans or 30-second sound bites or the promise of hope.
Real leadership is about honesty, truth and results.
Struggling middle-class Americans deserve answers to these questions. It is time for substance not symbolism. It is time to move past previous declarations and present people with a solution to long-term care. There is no more time for indifference, and we are long past comparing apples and oranges.
In 1990, the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz said a “graying America speaks to the national urgency.” More than 20 years later, we cannot allow the distillations of problems and the deeply entrenched political parties of today to further ravage the economic well-being of middle-class families.
While no one can expect a new national entitlement program, what we can expect and should demand is for Congressional leadership to debate and discuss a topic that will steal from every middle class family’s finances because their government leaders simply turned their backs.
No person should fear being forced into a long-term care facility, and no family should face the economic terror of how to pay for it. While the challenges are enormous, so are the consequences.
Jeffrey Lewis, the former president of the Heinz Family Philanthropies, now serves as chief operating officer at EHIMRx and can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org.