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How to fix U.S. long-term care over the long haul


Thursday, February 11, 2016

Ask Americans what they fear most about aging, and many will tell you it is the possibility of needing nursing care – and not being able to pay for it.

They are right to worry. Federal data shows that about half the people who turn 65 today will not have any need for long-term care. But 27 percent will spend at least $100,000 lifetime, and about 15 percent will face costs over $250,000.

Yet we do not have a comprehensive national policy approach for covering long-term care. Only the most affluent households can afford to pay out of pocket, and private long-term care insurance covers only about 7.4 million people, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Many others will be covered under Medicaid, which funds care only in cases where a patient’s assets have been almost completely spent.

Congress has not addressed the problem, partly due to the highly polarized atmosphere surrounding health policy. In the debate about long-term care, the right wants private-market insurance solutions, while the left advocates for public coverage through Medicare.

A new emerging approach is a hybrid that could bridge the partisan divide. The core idea: make private insurance work better, but cover the most extreme risk through a publicly financed insurance program.

The first set of recommendations was released recently by the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), and two other sets are scheduled for release soon. All three are based on detailed research about the United States’ long-term care needs, insurance markets and financing mechanisms by the Urban Institute and Milliman, an insurance industry actuarial consulting firm.

The BPC report offers comprehensive recommendations for changes in everything from Medicaid to delivery of care in home and community settings. But two recommendations, in particular, point to promising middle ground that could really help solve the long-term care riddle.