Tales from the Road to the White House Conference on Aging

Later in 2005, the fifth White House Conference on Aging in history will convene in Washington, D.c= Its purpose will be to help lay the foundation for a national aging policy in our nation through 2015.

The last White House Conference on Aging (WHCoA), called by President Clinton in May 1995, engaged many thousands of Americans in its deliberations. This proved pivotal to the outcome of the conference and the various resolutions it produced, some of which became new public laws in the ensuing years.

The 2005 Conference is also working to engage the public in its deliberations. In fact, estimates provided by the Conference point to some 50,000 persons who have participated in events associated with the Conference to date. I am pleased to serve on the Policy Committee for the 2005 WHCoA, appointed by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. In this capacity I have had the good fortune to participate in a number of WHCoA events, both in Washington and around the nation.

I am especially interested in the issues that consistently appear on the agendas of these events, and many of them will be front and center on the agenda of the main White House Conference. Several of these issues are demographic and the first relates to the baby boomers. The simple reality is that baby boomers are aging. On July 1, 2005, the majority of boomers will be 50 years of age and older for the first time in history. The first wave of boomers will become eligible for early retirement under Social Security in 2008 and for Medicare in 2011. Boomers, being twice as large a cohort as those over 65, will impact policies and programs over the next decade. The need to prepare for the aging of boomers is a dominant concern at local, state and national levels. They will impact everything from the way Medicare provides coverage to the way senior centers of the future will operate.

The other dynamic is the changing face of aging in our nation. Between now and 2030 we will see a doubling of the minority aging population, with the largest increase being among Asian-Americans, Hispanics and African-Americans. Around the nation you see more attention being directed toward how we achieve better cultural competency and sensitivity in the delivery of health care and social services, especially to the poor. Based on the level of interest in advance of the WHCoA, these issues will certainly be on the agenda for action later this year.

A lot of interest, if not apprehension, is being registered about long-term care in our nation. Long-term care is the largest unfunded liability that boomers face. Today in America, long-term care costs of all kinds exceed the costs for prescription drugs and medical devices combined. Medicaid, the largest federal program providing coverage for long-term care, is in crisis. People involved in WHCoA events want some new directions in long-term care policy for the future. People in the nation are advocating for a balance between the public and private sector in a long-term care policy. Over and over people ask for Medicaid reform to occur to bolster, not weaken, the safety net which protects millions of our poorest citizens. People also want to see reforms in our tax laws to provide new incentives for individuals to purchase long-term care insurance and want the industry to have these products meet strong consumer protection requirements. Americans also want a full array of choices for long-term care, from nursing homes to assisted living, to home- and community-based care. One type of care does not fit all.

A related issue raised time and again relates to the emerging caregiving crisis in our nation. Today, more than 22 million families have some form of caregiving responsibilities to confront. Many boomers are part of the “sandwich generation” where they are confronted with caring for both their children and their parents. Caregiving exacts a human and financial toll on our nation. It affects our productivity: caregiving costs American business more than $27 billion a year in lost time and altered work schedules for caregivers. It also reduces short- and long-term income opportunities for caregivers. The call heard in our nation is for greater recognition and support for caregiving in national policy. Again, the tax code is viewed as critical, specifically to provide a meaningful tax credit for family caregivers.

A wide array of issues is raised at every White House Conference on Aging event, whether in big cities or rural America. Two others bear mention. One is the hue and cry for action by Congress on legislation to fight elder abuse, neglect and exploitation. The second is to give more attention to research and services to deal with mental health and aging in our nation.

Eventually, a cross section of more than 1,200 persons on a bipartisan basis will convene in Washington at the 2005 White House Conference on Aging. They will be responsible for the adoption of up to 50 resolutions that will address major issues in national aging policy for the future. The 2005 White House Conference on Aging will certainly address two marquee issues of the day in aging policy that are part of the WHCoA agenda: Social Security reform and Medicare. I lack sufficient clairvoyance to know how these issues will play out at the Conference, but the actions of this bipartisan group of Americans on these issues could impact what is ultimately advanced by the administration and approved by Congress.

All White House Conferences on Aging have been opportunities to affect change in the direction and future of national aging policy. This upcoming conference will be no different and I look forward to its deliberations and decisions.

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.