Every ten years since 1961, Congress has authorized a White House Conference on Aging; the last was held under President Bill Clinton in May 1995. The next will take place on October 23-26, 2005. It remains to be seen who will be occupying the White House at that time.
These conferences are designed to develop a blueprint for national aging policy for the next ten years. As we approach the next conference, it is interesting to see where we were, are now, and may be going with respect to aging policy.
One thing is certain: America continues to age. The graying of America is more a reality than a cliché. We see especially rapid growth in two sectors: the "old-old" (those 85 and over) and the minority elderly, especially Asian Americans and Hispanics.
Ten years ago, we spoke about the age wave. Ten years ago, the oldest baby boomer was a mere 48 years of age. By the time of the next White House Conference on Aging, he or she will be 59 years old and eligible for the programs and services of the Older Americans Act one year later.
The aging of the boomers is one of the major differences between 1995 and 2005 and will certainly remain so in the next ten years, with the first wave of boomers becoming eligible for Medicare beginning in 2011.
In the last decade, helped to some degree by the resolutions adopted by the 1995 White House Conference on Aging, Congress has enacted historic new policies and programs on aging, including a prescription drug benefit under Medicare (however inadequate it may be), a National Family Caregiver Support Program under the Older Americans Act, and the repeal of the outside earnings limitation under Social Security which penalized older workers.
Sadly, some problems continue from ten years ago, including the growth in the number of older Americans with Alzheimer's, continued age-based discrimination in the workplace, and the continued absence of a national long-term care policy.
As we look to the future, we note that in 2005 we will celebrate anniversaries for the federal programs which make up the essence of our national policy on aging today. Next year is the 70th anniversary of the Social Security Act and the 40th anniversaries of Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act. Each of these programs, depending on the political outcome in November, could be a target for legislative action in 2005. In fact, the Older Americans Act is scheduled to be reauthorized in 2005 and several key House Committee chairmen have indicated that Medicaid reform will be a front and center issue next year.
The future of aging policy and the degree of success of these policies will revolve around two imperatives. The first is that the aging population is changing and we need new policies that respond to these changes. The face of aging will change as boomers become seniors. Programs, like Medicare for example, need to modernize and adapt. The Medicare model of 1965 was based on helping most when one became ill. A new Medicare must commit more to prevention, both to adapt to new users and to help Medicare's solvency. We must also prepare better for an aging society by providing incentives to get more professionals in the heath care field trained in geriatric medicine.
Another change in the aging population is the doubling of minority elderly by 2030. Our programs and policies must show greater sensitivity in design, location and options. We must especially tackle health care disparities before the have-nots get any older.
The second imperative is to find the proper balance among the role of government, the role of the private sector and the role of the individual in national aging policy. The balance among these three entities will be sought in a number of aging programs in the future. As it relates to Social Security, this is the time to discuss options, not dictate ideologies. Let us first dismiss the notion that the system is in crisis and instead look at a range of options for the years beyond 2050. No one approach can work alone. The government's role in Social Security must remain key, as for more than half of current beneficiaries, it is their primary source of income. The individual must do more in terms of saving for retirement.
Finally, another issue where this balance is needed is in long term care. Government's role is clear: Medicaid must be strengthened to meet the long-term care needs of our neediest citizens, but provide more choices of care and a greater commitment to quality of care. We should also provide meaningful tax credits for family caregivers. Individuals need to plan for their long-term care in various ways including, where appropriate, long-term care insurance. The private sector must offer products and services that help in long-term care and provide strong consumer protections.
President Clinton in 1995 wisely instructed that the White House Conference on Aging not be about the aged only, but about aging as a process that impacts all generations. This intergenerational focus is key to making reasoned and reasonable decisions about the long-term future of Social Security and Medicare. Let us be a nation that recognizes both the challenge and the opportunity of an aging society.
Bob Blancato is president of Matz, Blancato & Associates, Inc=, a firm integrating public relations, government affairs and advocacy services. He previously served as the executive director of the 1995 White House Conference on Aging, appointed by President Clinton.