[SENIOR MOMENTS] Living Longer but Worried

Stephanie Vendig

At this writing, the US Senate is deliberating about health care legislation. It is the old question of “to be or not to be.” There are political consequences for the parties and economic consequences for the country, not to speak of what it means for those of us who are aging.

My friend Annemarie sent this letter to the New York Times:

“I am 83, live in a rent-controlled apartment and do not feel poor. My income is just below the median average for my area. But should I become too ill to live independently and have to move to an assisted living or nursing facility, my monthly income and my savings would be sufficient only to cover the costs for less than a year. After that I would need to apply for Medicaid, or Medi-Cal as it is called in California. The proposed cuts to Medicaid have me worried.”

Beyond diminishing and eliminating features of the Affordable Care Act itself, the plan cuts drastically into our safety net: Medicaid. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Medicaid budget would be 35% lower by 2036 if this plan goes through. Thus, even if you are eligible to enroll, you may not be able to access what you need when the time comes.

The elderly rely on Medicaid to help finance nursing home care or long-term care supports not provided by Medicare. Almost two-thirds of Medicaid spending goes to the elderly and the disabled even though they make up just one in four recipients. With older people growing towards 25% of the population by 2050, and the over-85 group now the fastest-growing demographic over all, the well-being of America’s elderly is in danger.

We thought we could save for retirement, but we didn’t figure that we would be sticking around so long. In July, The Economist reported, “In America today a 70-year-old man has a 2% chance of dying within a year; in 1940, this milestone was passed at 56.” Thus, as we live longer, our economic burden becomes greater as we go through a long active life plus a period of physical limitations that demand help.

Those unable to access Medicaid will be forced to stay at home without the help they need. The result could be injury or illness leading to a hospital stay, which can be many times more expensive than a nursing home. And the cost, of course, will still have to be picked up by the federal government through Medicare, because Medicaid was not there when needed. Does that make financial sense?

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