Help for Life's Long Night

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Sherry Meadows, a tax assessor in Mount Vernon, Ill., first considered long-term insurance in 1992 as her 50th birthday made her ponder old age. But she put it off, shocked by the high premiums and thinking she and husband John had some time. But by 1997, he was found to have Alzheimer's. Now Sherry's life is about loss--of John, 56, and of life as she knew it. Only work interrupts her constant vigil. There are no nights off from tending to John since she can't afford the $125-a-day fee for what has come to be known as respite care. Day care alone now comes to $700 a month. "I could kick myself for not taking out the insurance," she says. "But I had no idea we'd be facing this."

Last week Sherry and millions like her were understandably attentive as the President unveiled a five-year, $6.2 billion long-term-care package. The plan includes $5.5 billion for an annual $1,000 tax credit for those who need or are providing care, and $125 million to pay for caregiver courses and respite services. Clinton could not have found a sweeter spot, since 5 million Americans need such care, a necessity that has a quarter of families caring for a relative over 50. Yet with the national average cost of care being $47,000 a year, the $1,000 credit will barely make a dent in those bills.

The best part of Clinton's plan may be the respite grants, which will help 250,000 families take a much needed break. The rest of the package is based on the wan hope that the market will somehow correct itself; the bill tries to nudge it that way. Over 60% of Medicare users believe their program covers long-term care, a fallacy that leaves them unprepared for protracted illness. Medicaid, the state and federal health program for the poor, does cover long-term care, and those without insurance often end up in its arms--after care costs have gutted their savings. Clinton's plan will spend $10 million to warn Medicare recipients to prepare--but prepare how? A bare-bones policy can cost a 65-year-old $2,000 a year; by 75, the premium could reach $7,000 a year.

So what should Clinton have proposed? Even his critics have no concrete plans of their own. Some make vague suggestions about stock market-based fixes. A few states are offering tax breaks as incentives to purchase insurance. But no proposal looks like a national panacea. Other experts suggest raising the Medicaid income eligibility level but can't say how to pay the huge bill. The best chance for a fix may come as 76 million baby boomers retire over the next 30 years--what Clinton calls the "senior boom." That generation could change the face of America again, forcing reform by demanding better care packages from employers and new solutions from government. But if it fails, Sherry Meadows' stressed-out life could become a sad, bitter reality for tens of millions more.