The proportion of senior citizens suffering from chronic disabilities has shrunk since 1982, saving the Medicare and Medicaid programs billions of dollars a year, a new study found.
The Duke University report spurred calls to seek savings in the Medicare program through expanded benefits that will improve the health status of senior citizens.
And the findings provide a glimpse of why many national managed-care companies are aggressively marketing new Medicare HMO products to seniors, a group traditionally viewed as a bad insurance risk (See related stories, p. 20).
Healthier lifestyles and medical technology were responsible for slower growth in disabilities among Americans 65 years and older, according to the study.
The number of senior citizens with chronic disabilities increased to 7.1 million of 33.7 million total seniors in 1994 from 6.4 million of 26.9 million in 1982.
But had the disability rate been the same in 1994 as in 1982, 8.3 million Americans would have been chronically disabled, according to the Duke study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The shrinking share of senior citizens who are chronically disabled-which the report defined as a person who cannot perform at least one of several daily tasks such as dressing or cooking-meant savings to the Medicare program of $25 billion to $33 billion in 1995, said Duke researcher Kenneth Manton.
In a forum last week at which the report was released, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said the findings show the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund can be saved by spending more to expand benefits that improve beneficiaries' health.
But other healthcare experts were less optimistic.
Joshua Wiener, principal research associate at the Urban Institute, noted that during the study period Medicare spending increased at 10% per year.
"There has not been any demonstrated relationship between improvements in health status and health expenditures," Wiener said.