They called it a "Conversation Summit," the event held at the Palm Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles on March 15. It brought together a host of experts to discuss the changing landscape of healthcare as the Baby Boomer generation roars into their Medicare years.
But first, as host Jim McMahon, the WellPoint, Inc., vice president of product management/innovation, pointed out, the assembled experts, reporters and bloggers needed to get on the same page. The terms "seniors" and "the silent generation" are the ones currently used to describe the over-65 population that Medicare serves, but now that the Baby Boomers are coming of age, those terms are passé. Not to mention the fact that those born from 1946 to 1964, that huge, lump-in-the-snake group of Americans, don't like to be called seniors, even if the oldest of them have recently hit age 65.
So "Baby Boomers" it is, the moniker that has traveled with the post-World War Two generation since the 1970s and will follow them into the grave. But before they get there, most have a ways to go, as Americans are living longer and longer. So as the 76 million Boomers make their way into (gasp!) old age, the conversation has to take place, as McMahon framed it: "What will the landscape of healthcare look like for Boomers as the years unfold?"
Weighing in on that question were a variety of experts, from Jennifer Kowalski, a director of Avalere Health, a D.C.-based healthcare consulting firm, and Lindsay Resnick, the chief marketing officer for KBM Group (a marketing services company that specializes in healthcare), to Peter Holtgrave and Nat Hutton of the Oasis Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting successful aging. Also on hand was Dr. Sheldon Zinberg, the longtime advocate of healthful aging and founder of Nifty after Fifty, the fitness centers that cater to, as he explained, "the 50- to 95-year-old market."
Kowalski noted that, "Baby Boomers understand more about the differences between Medicare, Medicare Advantage and Medicare Supplement plans than their parents, the so-called 'silent generation,' mostly because they understand how to find information on the Internet." But she insisted that, despite attempts by the government (with www.medicare.gov, www.healthcare.gov and other information channels) to make those choices easy to understand, "it all needs to be much simpler."
That is particularly true of what Resnick identified as the 50 million Boomers that are currently uninsured, "who when they reach 65 will be lining up for care that they haven't had before." The experts agree that one way to begin to understand options is coming by way of the Affordable Care Act signed into law two years ago by the Obama administration; part of that act is a soon-to-be-implemented Medicare Advantage rating system designed to help people choose the best care possible.
"Healthcare has never been data driven in the past," said WellPoint's McMahon, "but all that is changing now. It just makes sense to pay for quality care if you can, so this new ratings system will definitely help make that easier."
The experts agreed that implementing simpler ways for Boomers to figure out the maze of Medicare and its plans is a key element in the changing landscape of healthcare for the aging population; the other is finding ways to keep all those millions of people healthier than the generation that preceded them, thus saving on healthcare costs as they all dive into their golden years. That's where the Oasis Institute and Nifty after Fifty come in, being proactive in making sure that Boomers do not succumb to the ravages of age.
"It's important to engage people over 50 in ways that will improve their overall well being," Holtgrave insisted. "Our 'Active Generations' program at Oasis encourages over-50 volunteers to interact with kids as part of the CATCH [the Coordinated Approach to Child Health] initiative, getting them moving with various games and exercises, which is helping to stop the spread of childhood obesity. And it keeps the 50-plus volunteers doing more exercise themselves, in keeping with our goal of promoting healthy aging for everyone."
That successful "intergenerational program" is currently in 18 cities across the United States, with plans for rollouts in many more. Meanwhile, Nifty after Fifty goes even further toward keeping Baby Boomers in good shape and out of the hospital, by providing what Zinberg explained is "a customized health and wellness plan for each person, finding that person's area of frailty – and we all have weaknesses – and then developing a full-body training program that addresses any problems and promotes overall strength." Considering that, as Zinberg stated, "one out of three over-65 seniors takes a serious fall every year," it seems that his health centers are on the right track, as "we've decreased the incidence of falling in our members by 85 percent." That, the doctor said, "keeps people out of our hospitals and nursing homes and makes a huge difference in the quality of life as we age."
By the end of the summit, a few things about Baby Boomer healthcare in the coming years were clear. With so many Boomers heading into their retirement years in the next decade, the experts agreed that it is important for the healthcare landscape to shift, making insurance and Medicare choices easier to navigate (especially via the Internet) and more in tune with what the Boomer generation expects – quality care with a minimum of complications.
And at the same time, the Boomers must continue to embody the seismic shift they have already created during their lives up to now, in being a force of nature for changing the way that aging is perceived and lived. For while 50 may not actually be the new 30 (as some Boomers are known to proclaim), being age 50 and above is a distinctly different thing than it was for the generations that preceded them. And if Boomers are going to keep their reputation as being the generation that changed it all, they must be proactive in keeping themselves healthy, strong and independent – and out of nursing homes and hospitals if at all possible.