I am disappointed, but not surprised, that Congress' latest health reform effort does almost nothing to repair our tattered long-term care system.
The massive health reform bill proposed today by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont) touches nearly every part of the health system: Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance, hospitals, doctors, you name it. Except for one critical element. The proposal all but ignores the needs of the 10 million Americans who require long-term care, both at home and in nursing facilities, and the 40 million family members and friends who care for them.
In fact, the measure could end up hurting some of the poorest and most frail who rely on Medicaid for the long-term care services. I'll tell you why in just a minute.
The proposal does include some new incentives for people to buy private long-term care insurance through their workplace. For the first time, it would allow employers to include this coverage in what are known as cafeteria plans. The benefit for workers is they'd be able to pay their premiums with pre-tax dollars. That's a big advantage, especially for the highest earners.
However, the proposal also would cap the amount of a worker's annual pre-tax Flexible Savings Account contributions at $2,000. That means they would have only that amount to pay for health care deductibles, copayments, and other uncovered medical expenses. And it would leave them with very little to pay for long-term care premiums.
Baucus' proposal does not include the national long-term care insurance program known as the CLASS Act, although that idea is included in another bill that was approved over the summer by the Senate Health Committee. It includes only some modest provisions to better coordinate care for those with multiple chronic diseases, and it does nothing for hard-pressed direct care workers such as home health aides.
Finally, the Baucus plan does nothing to encourage states to provide Medicaid long-term care at home rather than in nursing facilities. And here is where it may make it even more difficult for those at home to get help from Medicaid. The Baucus plan would greatly expand the number of young mothers and children eligible for Medicaid. But states must pay half of those costs, and they would be only partially reimbursed by the feds. That means their Medicaid budgets, already stressed to the breaking point, will be squeezed even more. And where will they cut to make up their new costs? Home care expenses for the elderly and disabled--a costly benefit states are not required to provide--could well be a prime target.
Health reform will go through many more steps over the next few months. And long-term care reforms remain on the table. But by ignoring this critical issue today, Baucus certainly didn't help those efforts.