Last year, the Minnesota Citizen’s League asked me to help with a very ambitious project: The group wanted to find ways to improve our broken system of long-term care financing. Earlier this month, the non-profit, non-partisan League came up with its recommendations. I don’t agree with them all, but among their far-reaching proposals are some ideas that I hope have legs. 

The League’s white paper, called “Moving Beyond Medicaid: Long-Term Care for the Elderly as a Life Quality and Fiscal Imperative” makes three basic recommendations–all aimed at increasing the role of personal responsibility for long-term care while maintaining a safety net for the most needy.

The group would restructure Medicaid, encourage innovative financial products to help families pay for long-term care, and begin a broad education campaign through civic organizations and employers.Their goal is for half of Minnesotans to have some financial planning in place for long-term care by 2015. 

Here is a brief summary of each proposal:

Medicaid: The state/federal insurance program would remain a safety net for the very poor, but middle-class families would be expected to self-finance some of their long-term care costs. While Medicaid would supplement coverage, families would either rely on savings, private long-term care insurance, or home equity to pay their share. They could also buy coverage through the the CLASS Act, the new voluntary national long-term care insurance program that was included in the 2010 health reform law.

New Financing Tools: These include a program to offer prizes to low- and middle-income households who open new savings accounts, a design modeled on an existing program in Michigan. My favorite idea, however, is a new hybrid home equity/reverse mortage product that would provide a low-fee way for people to tap into the equity in their homes for long-term care needs. Today, reverse mortgages can serve that purpose but their fees are too high.

In the League model, Minnesota could create a new low-cost product. I’ve written about a similar model where the state itself could lend money to those who need long-term care and, get, in return, a lien on the recipient’s home. After the person getting care and their spouse died, the loan would be repaid with interest. Such a design would give people broad flexibility in designing their own care, an advantage not available with Medicaid.           

Education: Finally, the League, which has close ties to the local business community, urged companies to play a larger role in encourgaing workers to plan for their long-term care needs.It calls on business to encourage workers to increase both savings and consider home equity or insurance projects to prepare for care in old age. 

This would be a major change. Today, only one in seven workers has access to long-term care insurance through their workplace, according to the SCAN Foundation. And while the CLASS Act is built on workers buying government long-term care insurance through their job, there is little evidence that employers will be willing to offer the coverage as part of their benefit packages.  

The League has built a sturdy foundation for long-term care reform–education, better savings vehicles, and a broad reform of Medicaid. Minnesota’s state-funded long-term care program is, like most states, under tremendous financial pressure these days. I hope the state gives some of the League suggestions a try.