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Report From the American Society of Aging Conference

Every year the American Society on Aging (ASA) has held a conference that brings together a specific group of healthcare providers for older Americans. The attendees are primarily providers of home care, assisted living facilities, long term care, etc. Many nonprofits and providers of services covered under the Older Americans Act also attend. It is a huge conference, one that I have attended many times in the past. It is held each year in New Orleans, and this was its first non-virtual, in person conference held since the start of the pandemic. I took the opportunity to attend this year to stay updated on what the future holds for older Americans.

This conference offers workshops and training that are valuable to those in this sector of healthcare. They offer different tracks of classes and panels that represent different facets of healthcare. One of these tracks focuses on public policy and legislation and regulations that will affect the attendee’s organizations. As you might guess this is the conference track that I chose to attend. ASA is a large and powerful organization, and, since most of their funding comes from Medicare, Medicaid or other government funded programs, they are very interested in proposed changes to these programs. As I listened to the presentations, I found some general themes that concerned me as I considered the long-term impact on our healthcare.

Everyone was extremely disappointed in the failure of the Build Back Better (BBB) Act that was to be President Biden’s signature piece of legislation. I certainly understood their disappointment. There were many pieces of that legislation that would have increased government funding for their organizations. There wasn’t much concern with the trillions of dollars that the government had already spent on COVID-19 related expenditures and how much the BBB Act would add to this huge debt. This huge debt was the main concern for those Senators and Representatives who chose not to support BBB. There were certainly weaknesses in our healthcare that were exposed by COVID-19 that need to be fixed. Issues like increasing the use of telehealth, ways to serve those in rural areas, and one of the most discussed issues at the conference, how to develop equity in our healthcare services. There weren’t many discussions, however, on how to get these solutions implemented.    

The opening keynote speaker, Raymond Jetson, an inspirational speaker who has pioneered programs that use local assets to improve the lives of older people in different communities, made an interesting observation about some nonprofits and institutions that were created to serve seniors. He said that sometimes the people running the organization became more enamored with the container, the organization itself, rather than the people within the container . . . older Americans, the people the organization was created to serve. I think that this description details much of what has caused problems within Medicare and Medicaid, and government organizations in general. They get wrapped up in self-preservation and layers of regulations rather than focusing on the people they should be serving and their changing needs. Often, a government institution’s reaction to problems is the addition of more regulations and more oversight, which was part of the problem in the first place. An example of this situation was revealed in two panels I attended later in the conference.

The first panel centered around what advocates need to know about what’s happening in Washington, D.C. After bemoaning the failure of the BBB Act one of the panelists ventured off into a discussion about the administration’s failure to rein in Medicare Advantage (MA) programs. He pointed out that last year the government had paid $15 billion in extra payments to the insurance companies that had taken on the total responsibilities for treating the seniors who had opted for a MA program which offers many more benefits than basic Medicare. He even said that the administration was encouraging the privatization of Medicare and it seemed everyone in the room agreed with this inaccurate description. Later in the panel discussion, as a solution to stop the privatization of Medicare, a panelist opined that rather than Medicare for all we should push a single payer system to the state level and have Medicaid for all, to which there seemed to be widespread agreement. It seemed the room’s solution to any problems with Medicare was an increase in government control.

The next day there was a panel discussion of what the first year of President Biden had accomplished as it relates to seniors. The same panelist who disparaged the increase of seniors that have opted for Medicare Advantage again discussed his displeasure with this alarming trend. I couldn’t hold back any longer . . . I pointed out to the panel that the cost in the BBB Act for adding benefits like those offered by MA were going to cost about $40 billion a year and that was mostly just for the dental benefit. I asked if that didn’t seem like a pretty good deal, the $15 billion payment mentioned yesterday instead of $40 billion for less benefits in the BBB Act. There was a sudden diversion into a discussion of other higher estimates for MA payments. I then asked what they thought was the reason for the percentage of seniors joining MA plans going from 30% just a few years ago to almost 50% now. They said that one reason was the intense marketing (Joe Namath’s name was bantered about). I asked if they thought this large number of seniors would pick a plan that wasn’t best for them because of a Joe Namath commercial? Much discussion ensued. It always gets my dander up when people insinuate that seniors aren’t capable of making informed decisions about their healthcare.

There were many devoted people at this conference who were interested in learning how to better care for the seniors in our country. There was, however, a disturbing trend on the public policy side that revealed many who were more interested in building up the container than doing the things that would benefit the people the container serves, older Americans.

It was great to, once again, see and talk with people face to face. I listened and learned (except when I was moved to speak out) and I feel like I have a better reading of the pulse of healthcare policy going forward. I will continue to speak out about issues that affect the health of America’s seniors.

Best, Thair  



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