While the Supreme Court completes its three days of hearing arguments about the constitutionality of Obamacare, the groundwork has already been laid for an extraordinary partnership. Obama has tapped a health policy expert to head the World Bank – and Dr. Jim Yong Kim, president of Dartmouth University, is a revealing choice. A veteran leader of the HIV/AIDS movement, Kim has a resume that proves he can mobilize a disparate group of stakeholders around a single health issue.
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Yet the critics are now out en masse, arguing that Dr. Kim is “anti-growth” and lacks the economic acumen for the position. While the criticisms may have some merit, they fail to recognize the larger point: As we transition into an unprecedented demographic transformation in this country, with more people over the age of 60 than under the age of 15, good economic policy requires good health policy.
As the World Bank lays out its plans to stimulate growth in the coming years, Dr. Kim may be exactly what the doctor ordered − a health-field expert who can prioritize healthy aging. Americans are living well past traditional retirement age, so health and economic policy can no longer be separate enterprises. (Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) emphasized this point in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.)
This partnership, though, is only the first step. The World Bank must now find strategic partnerships to drive home the notion that healthy aging will stimulate economic growth.
One ideal partner could be HelpAge International, an organization that works with older adults around to world to live healthy lives by overcoming poverty and discrimination. Winner of this year’s Hilton Humanitarian Prize, HelpAge has a remarkable track-record of charitable, compassionate service to the world’s less fortunate. They’ve also demonstrated a persistent belief that the older adults still have a great deal to contribute to society. As the Hilton Foundation’s CEO said when bestowing the award: “HelpAge [shows] that it is important to recognize and support older people so they can continue to be contributing and productive members of society.” Health must be a centerpiece of this equation.
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At the heart of the HelpAge philosophy is the idea that older adults maintain ownership of their lives, their rights, and their health. Mama Teresa, a 68-year-old Kenyan farmer, says she joined the Older Citizens Monitoring Group, which was set up by a HelpAge International affiliate, “to monitor how health care officials treat older people. If you go to the hospital, they don't welcome us properly. You stay there so long, sitting on benches, four to five hours without being seen, because you are old. Because of our group's work, they now attend to older people as soon as they see us… But there is still much more to do.”
At the heart of this philosophy is a self-responsibility that goes against the 20th-century social welfare models that are proving unsustainable with 21st-century demographics. The U.S., Europe, Japan and even the World Bank and Dr. Jim Yong Kim can learn from Mama Teresa and HelpAge – and the commitment to healthy aging as good economic policy.