Held once a decade since the 1960s, the White House Conference on Aging is credited with spurring such achievements as Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s and expanded home care under Medicare in the 1980s.
When the conference convenes in Washington next month, comprehensive medical and long-term care will still be the top priorities. But senior-citizen advocates and provider groups will be defending decades-old programs now on the congressional chopping block.
In earlier times the federal government could not envision the limits of ambitious entitlement programs. Today the government is face-to-face with those limits, as demonstrated by recent pro jections that the Medicare Part A trust fund will be depleted by the year 2002.
Such dire predictions are prompting Congress to explore restructuring and reining in entitlement programs, raising the threat of changes to the healthcare of millions of senior citizens.
"Most of what will come out of the White House Conference on Aging will be a reaffirmation of existing programs," said Joshua Wiener, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, a Washington research organization. "It's an open question at this time if there will be any serious discussion of restructuring Medicare (at the conference)."
Led by its Republican majority, Congress has made clear it intends to check the growth of entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, which older Americans rely on for healthcare and long-term care. Congress is discussing Medicare cuts estimated at $130 billion to $250 billion over the next five years.
Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, said the conference needs to recognize that entitlement spending is consuming an ever-increasing share of government expenditures and that an aging population will drive that even higher.
"It is crucial that the White House Medicare/Medicaid
Conference on Aging help set a realistic aging agenda for the next decade," Cohen said. "With fewer federal dollars to spend, we must encourage individuals and businesses to help take on the task of planning for retirement years through incentives for the purchase of long-term-care insurance, savings and creative pension plans."
Conference officials said addressing the looming limits on healthcare and long-term-care programs for senior citizens will be an underlying theme when more than 2,200 delegates assemble in Washington May 2-5.
Robert Blancato, the conference's executive director, said that by recognizing such limits the delegates can work on ways to make healthcare and long-term-care programs more efficient. For example, they could encourage more private-sector involvement or learning from state experiments.
"I think you're going to see a new look at virtually every program," Blancato said.