Senior Obama Administration official Richard Frank says he is “cautiously optimistic” that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can build a viable government sponsored long-term care insurance program under the CLASS Act. CLASS is a national, voluntary long-term care insurance system that was included in the 2010 health reform law.

Frank, a highly respected professor of health policy at Harvard Medical School, is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Evaluation at HHS. He told a group of long-term care industry representatives, researchers, and elder advocates today that while HHS faces major challenges, the agency can design a workable insurance program under the controversial law, 

Although a deficit reduction commission appointed by Obama recommended last week that CLASS be either repealed or reformed, Frank says he is squarely in the reform camp. And, while he acknowledges it will be a major challenge to create policies that consumers will be willing to buy, he thinks that goal can be reached without changes to the law. CLASS, Richard says, “is designed to change the terms under which we buy and sell long-term supports and services in this country.” And, he adds, “it has a great deal of potential.”

I agree. But I worry that a real insurance market may never develop under CLASS. The problems are many: CLASS is a voluntary program for both consumers and their employers. The government is barred from refusing coverage to anyone over 18 who works even part-time, no matter what their health status. Anyone who makes more than $1,100 a year is eligible to participate, and low-income workers may buy insurance for only $5-per-month. This arrangement will encourage many working people with disabilities to buy, but also threatens to drive premiums so high that others will be discouraged from purchasing.

Richard acknowledges the problem, and says he assumes initial participation rates will be quite low–likely well below 10 percent. He also says HHS is wrestling with a number of technical issues, such as how to encourage employers to participate in the program, how CLASS will work for those who are also using home care services under Medicaid, how to manage the risk of rapidly-rising long-term care costs, and how to deermine eligibility, especially for those with mental illness. The mentally ill are not usually covered by long-term care insurance but some will be eligible for CLASS benefits.

Making CLASS work will be a huge challenge, but at least today, two years before HHS is due to begin selling policies, Frank still thinks the agency can pull it off. I hope he’s right.