Stateline Story

White House Seeks State Aging Solutions

On the brink of the first baby boomers turning 60, the White House is about to assemble 1,200 state delegates to focus on ways state aging departments, the private sector and federal officials can gird for the nation's much-heralded retirement stampede.

The White House Conference on Aging , convened almost every 10 years since 1961, opens Dec. 11 with the goal of making recommendations to President Bush and Congress to help guide aging policy over the next decade.

At the four-day meeting, delegates will vet proposals recommended at some 400 state and regional pre-conferences held over the past year. The 2005 meeting is distinguished by its focus on technology and private sector solutions, as well as its promotion of healthy life styles for seniors, said conference executive director Scott Nystrom .

Past White House conferences—in 1961, 1971, 1981 and 1995—have had major influences on today's aging policy.

The first resulted in enactment of Social Security Act amendments that provided additional support to beneficiaries, and the Older Americans Act, which funded a variety of state aging programs and which Congress is due to reauthorize next year. The1971 conference spawned the U.S. House Select Committee on Aging, the 1981 conference focused on needed Social Security adjustments, and recommendations from the 1995 conference affirmed the value of Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act.

"Everyone keeps saying 'The boomers are coming, the boomers are coming.' This is a chance to do something about it," Nystrom said. "Our expectation is that the delegates will develop workable solutions that will benefit today's seniors, boomers and ultimately all citizens."

The goal of the conference is to winnow 50 proposals from the hundreds the White House received and come up with practical plans for implementing them. Proposals submitted by state aging departments and other groups run the gamut from improving the quality of nursing home care and providing better transportation services for the elderly to guaranteeing state pension funds and developing senior-friendly communities.

While each state proposed a unique set of priorities, long-term health care for the elderly is among the top 10 issues on most state lists.

Alaska delegate Patricia Branson, Executive Director of Senior Citizens of Kodiak, says "the most important issue, by far, is long-term care. No one is addressing how we're going to take care of our age 85-plus citizens and keep them in the community."

Alaska , which has a higher-than-average cost of health care, suggests the federal government ensure that reimbursement rates for elders on Medicare and Medicaid are high enough to cover the patients' bills. 

Rhode Island proposes a national funding program that would follow seniors through the long-term care continuum so that "no elder is left behind."  Nevada calls for a community-based elderly care, instead of the "institutionally-based system that currently exists."

California proposed policies that would stimulate employers to provide opportunities for older workers, including second-career options, while Georgia suggested a program to provide "flexible, affordable transportation options for seniors," according to pre-conference resolutions forwarded to the White House.

Alabama delegate Melissa Galvin said an overarching issue is that future aging policy must be shaped, at least in part, by seniors. "As it is now, aging policy is designed by doctors, government officials, pharmaceutical companies and practically everyone else, but seniors," says Galvin, associate dean of the University of Alabama School of Public Health.

Galvin's view -- that seniors must be part of the solution -- is shared by conference organizers. A majority of the 1,200 delegates are age 55 or older.  Delegates were appointed by governors, members of Congress and the National Congress of American Indians, as well by the White House conference's policy committee, which is made up of members of Congress, administration officials, industry experts and leaders of nonprofit organizations.

On the first day of the meeting, delegates will choose their top 50 priorities from a list the policy committee culled from hundreds of pre-conference proposals. On day two, delegates will work with experts to develop strategies for turning those policies into workable programs. "This is the first White House conference to focus on developing realistic action plans to ensure that delegates' efforts are successful," Nystrom said.

Afterward, the policy committee will compile a final set of resolutions for review by governors from all 50 states. Once governors' comments have been included, the resolutions will be sent to the president and Congress.