Age & Reason
The CLASS Flunked – Now What?
Wednesday, October 19, 2011 - 12:34pm
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The Obama administration’s Community Living Assistance Services and Supports program, or CLASS, has, of course, failed – something that one of the GOP candidates for president, Michele Bachmann, couldn’t resist mentioning in last night’s televised debate in Las Vegas. What was meant to be a long-term health care insurance program was, at the end of last week, declared not “a viable path forward” by Kathleen Sebelius of the Department of Health and Human Services. The reasons couldn’t be clearer. HHS may have clothed its response in typical bureaucratese, but the fact is that the explosive growth of our aging populations in this country is going to require a fresh and out-of-the-box approach to elder care, not the “same old, same old.”

The sheer costs and the isolating, labor-intensive nature of traditional long-term care are simply out of whack with the realities of aging in America. Some 77 million baby boomers will turn 65 in the next two decades. Marginal policy tweaks and further subsidies will only pile on the debt while postponing the inevitable tough decisions that need to be made. And it’s not just the arithmetic that doesn’t work.

In a recent piece in Caring Magazine, Ken Dychtwald describes a failing health-care system in this country; he explains how poorly Medicare accommodates the needs of older Americans as the numbers grow and the needs expand. Basic biomedical research, among other things, doesn’t focus sufficiently on age-related health problems, including Alzheimer’s, which is destined to become a fiscal and health nightmare over the next few years. Dychtwald points out that geriatric medicine and care are neither promoted nor encouraged by universities, the medical profession, and society at large – contributing to the profound misalignment between our current health-care needs and the system’s ability to meet them. It will get worse, unfortunately: By 2030, over one quarter of our GDP will be consumed by health care.

This challenge demands profound new thinking about innovative solutions – including technological, biomedical and institutional solutions.
Technological innovations can be as simple as seniors downloading the right apps for their iPads – apps that can help provide expert advice on everything from prescription drugs to money management. Technology geared to seniors can increase their independence and decrease the need to further subsidize already overcrowded long-term care facilities. The innovations can be as high-end as new medical tools that allow for more efficient health monitoring and screening – monitoring that can also help older people be more independent.
 
We also need biopharmaceutical research to target the kinds of diseases that will explode as we live longer, including Alzheimer’s. Research can help create new antibiotics that better treat the infections particularly rampant among older Americans. Or think of the positive impact if we can truly address mobility and vision loss as we age – where technology and biomedicine are already making strides!

Finally, to help keep older Americans active and productive as they age, policy softballs executed inside our current entitlements structure will just not make it. We need a health-care system that can cope with an aging population and change the way we think of long-term care. This is at least as essential as the other great issues facing world leaders right now, yet it’s nowhere in sight – and the mistakes the Obama administration made on CLASS are being made again and again across the globe. 
Don’t be fooled that the failure of CLASS was a minor or limited event. It’s actually the tip of a huge global iceberg.

Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.