AARP says boomers' care crisis overblown

Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 12:37 a.m.
WASHINGTON - AARP wants to mute gloom and doom predictions that the long-term health care needs of aging baby boomers would break the bank soon.
For a group that often pressures Congress to act fast, a report that AARP is releasing today presents an unusually hopeful scenario. The study says previous projections of long-term care needs have been exaggerated and that social and health-care trends are more positive than often portrayed, at least until 2030.
"The assumption that increased longevity would be accompanied by higher rates of disability and usage of institutional long-term supportive services was clearly wrong," the report by the largest seniors organization says.
That's not to say that federal and state lawmakers can afford to do nothing. On the contrary, AARP maintains that the nation needs a better system. But it argues that there is time to accomplish the task and that the cost of care might not be as high as expected.
AARP officials hope the report will prevent legislative paralysis in states and on Capitol Hill, which have been awash in daunting predictions about problems that are expected to begin ballooning around 2011, when boomers start turning 65.
"They should not be operating under the assumption that the baby boomers are just around the corner with all this demand they can't meet," said Donald Redfoot, an AARP researcher who wrote the report.
Words such as "crisis" and "disaster" dominate long-term care discussions. Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat and the former chairman of the Aging Committee, last year used "catastrophic" to describe the fiscal impact of 77 million baby boomers hitting old age.
The AARP report says that prior estimates have been based on data collected before trends started to change in the 1990s. The AARP study is based on existing research from various sources.
The Congressional Budget Office last year predicted that spending on long-term care for the elderly would more than double to $195 billion in 2020 and quadruple to $379 billion by 2050. The AARP questions the figures, arguing disability rates have dropped in recent years below levels that the agency used. Key to AARP's conclusions is the drop of disabilities among seniors, which went down by 2.6 percent per year from 1994 through 1999 and 1.5 percent each of the previous five years.
Although the elderly population will increase more than 50 percent by 2020, the number of disabled seniors could remain steady if downward trends hold, the AARP report says. Seniors with serious disabilities tend to be the ones who need nursing homes, which are expensive and have actually seen declines in recent years. The AARP report says use of nursing home beds could stay constant or drop further in coming decades.
In a companion report by the AARP that uses the most recent available data, Florida ranked 29th for the percentage of people 65 and over receiving home health services through Medicaid, the state-federal health program for the poor. It ranked 14th for the percentage of recipients of Medicare, the federal program for the elderly, receiving home health care. And the state ranked seventh for the number of nursing home residents, with more than 70,000 in 2001.
The AARP report refused to make predictions past 2030, calling that risky. But the three-decade window is enough, AARP officials said.
"From a societal perspective, it means we have a greater opportunity for making innovative changes," Redfoot said.

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