A bipartisan deficit reduction plan proposed by the so-called “gang of six” Democratic and Republican senators would repeal the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act. CLASS, a national, voluntary long-term care insurance program, was included as part of the 2010 health law. The new budget plan, which President Obama called a “very significant step” also proposed significant, but unspecified cuts in Medicaid as well as other unidentified reductions in non-Medicaid social service programs.
Today, more than 40 percent of all long-term care is funded by Medicaid which is itself under tremendous financial stress. While CLASS is deeply flawed, it is an opportunity to transform long-term care from the means-tested Medicaid program to an insurance-based system. If CLASS is repealed, that opportunity will be lost, and millions of Americans will find themselves with only a shrinking Medicaid benefit to support them in frail old age or if they become disabled at a younger age.
The ultimate fate of the broad budget proposal is unknown. It would reduce the federal deficit by about $3.6 trillion over 10 years and is seen by some, including Obama, as a way to break the debt limit impasse that has divided Washington for months.
CLASS has been a target of both Republican and Democratic deficit hawks since was enacted, largely because they feared it would fail as an insurance program and eventually have to be bailed out by taxpayers. They also objected to budget accounting rules that made it seem as if CLASS was generating about $78 billion in new revenues that would be available to pay for health reform.
The Obama Administration has been struggling to design a CLASS insurance policy that would attract enough consumers to make the program self-sustaining. However, major design problems left many insurance experts skeptical that premiums would ever be affordable enough for broad participation.
While advocacy groups such as Leading Age, which represents some non-profit long-term care providers, immediately urged the CLASS repeal be dropped from the budget bill, I suspect their concerns will fall on deaf ears. CLASS is a tiny piece of a huge fiscal package and I see no one on Capitol Hill willing to defend it aggressively. With Obama and Congress looking for a way out of fiscal gridlock, CLASS will likely be lost in the noise of the bigger budget debate.
If so, CLASS will be remembered as a sadly missed opportunity, and those of us who worry about how the nation will fund long-term care will find ourselves back at square one.