As I’ve noted in a previous JAMA Forum post, there has been a determined and serious effort in recent years by a broad range of organizations and analysts to find a consensus approach to the growing problem of financing long-term care in the United States. These efforts have just resulted in 2 major reports, released in February.
One report comes from the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), a national think tank committed to finding workable bipartisan policy solutions. The other is published by the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, an organization that convenes groups and individuals with conflicting views to seek consensus on difficult issues. Participants in the latter project, known as the Long-Term Care Financing Collaborative, included leaders from major think tanks and philanthropy, insurance associations, health and consumer advocacy groups, organizations representing the interests of older Americans, not-for-profit services, and care for elderly persons, as well as former state and federal officials. (Disclosure: I served as an advisor to the BPC project and as a member of the Collaborative).
It’s a big step forward that the diverse participants in each of these projects were able to come to agreement. Why was that possible?
For one thing, the huge cost of long-term care and earlier failures to agree clearly focused many minds. Future costs are indeed attention-grabbing. Over the next 40 years, for instance, the number of elderly US residents with a severe need for long-term services and supports (LTSS) will increase 140% to more than 15 million. Meanwhile US adults turning 65 today can expect to incur an average of $138 000 in LTSS costs. But there is a wide risk distribution, with 15% of these seniors likely incurring more than $250 000 in expenses. Meanwhile, private insurance that covers the most crippling potential costs is proving harder and harder to find, with insurers increasing premiums and most pulling out of the market—in part because of the heavy and less predictable costs of aging.
Another factor that helped agreement in these projects was that the Urban Institute was able to upgrade its dynamic simulation model and to partner with the actuarial firm Milliman to incorporate claims data into its research to provide far more sophisticated and reliable estimates of several benchmark proposals. Urban made its model available to a range of organizations, including BPC (an employee benefits consulting company), LeadingAge (an association of groups that offer aging-related services), and the Collaborative. The estimates the Urban Institute produced had the effect of narrowing the set of plausible components in any serious plan. For instance, it became clear that a voluntary public catastrophic insurance program—even with subsidies—would be hard-pressed to significantly boost the number of people acquiring insurance protection against catastrophic LTSS costs.
What’s also important about these 2 projects is that the reports agree on several key elements. These elements are likely to form the core of potentially bipartisan legislation under a new Congress and administration. Among the most important are
- Improving the market for private insurance. The BPC and the Collaborative proposals call for a number of steps to revitalize the market for private long-term care insurance, such as allowing employment-based retirement savings to be used for premiums and perhaps using autoenrollment to increase the take-up of available coverage. Both plans propose simpler, more standardized plans, with BPC including details of standard options. The Collaborative recommends clearly delineating private and public roles in long-term care insurance, with a stronger public role in addressing high need, long duration risk. As a further step toward bolstering the insurance market, both proposals recommend exploring innovations in long-term care product design. Ideas include possible jointly marketed products with health insurance or Medicare and perhaps long-term care coverage combined with life insurance or annuities.
- Public catastrophic insurance. Both reports call for a public catastrophic program for individuals with extraordinary costs to protect them from poverty and bankruptcy. In part, this is also to help cover the “tail end” risk that discourages private insurers from offering comprehensive protection, thereby allowing insurers to focus on shorter-term, more predictable coverage. Each report is cautious about the uncertain cost of such protection but notes that the Medicaid program currently plays the role of insurer of last resort, and so a new catastrophic long-term care insurance program could help shift from the current welfare-based model toward a system of insurance. Echoing this, a new report from LeadingAge, which represents thousands of organizations engaged in aging services, also concluded that a universal program appears the best way to handle catastrophic costs.
- Retooling Medicaid. Both reports call for revamping Medicaid, by retooling its LTSS component to better serve persons with disabilities and others with long-term needs. Under both the BPC and Collaborative plans, states would offer a sliding-scale “buy-in” for Medicaid’s LTSS benefits. For working individuals with disabilities, this would function as a wraparound service to employer-sponsored health insurance and other health coverage. As both reports point out, the public catastrophic long-term care program would produce some savings for state Medicaid programs, making it financially easier for states to offer the wraparound coverage.
- Home and community based services. The 2 reports emphasize the importance of fostering community-based care and helping family caregivers. An AARP report found that approximately 34 million family members and friends—mainly women—provide unpaid care to an older adult each year. The BPC would streamline waivers from federal rules to encourage states to expand home and community services. The Collaborative takes a step further and recommends entirely redefining Medicaid LTSS to include all settings and services currently offered under “mandatory” and “optional” state programs, and by doing so, eliminating the current bias in financing toward institutional care. The BPC suggests exploring some support for these caregivers, including temporary respite care to allow the usual caregiver some time off. The Collaborative published a report last summer, arguing for much greater integration of health and LTSS, including housing and transportation and for greater opportunities for training and support for caregivers.
There is of course a long road between publishing recommendations and the passage of legislation. And there are gaps in these proposals. For instance, how much a full proposal would cost and how it would be paid for (including how much from savings or new taxes) depends on design choices not worked out in detail.
But the similarity of these reports, the range of people and organizations involved and the determination of the participants to find common ground are in stark contrast to the polarization and gridlock we have become accustomed to. It augers well for enacting a solution to the enormous challenge of long-term care costs.
About the author: Stuart M. Butler, PhD, is a senior fellow, Economic Studies, at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, where he focuses on developing new policy ideas. He is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Graduate School, and serves on the board of trustees for the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution.
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