The First Wave Makes Shore

January 03, 2011
1:03 pm

The Baby Boom generation – defined by the Census Bureau as those Americans born between 1946 and 1964 – is often referred to as a ‘demographic tidal wave.’  That’s because the sheer number of citizens in this generation, approximately 75 million in all, have had and will have an enormous impact on the economy, the nation’s infrastructure and, increasingly as the Baby Boomers age, social services.

This year, the leading edge of this tidal wave will become eligible for Medicare benefits.  Those born in 1946 will turn 65 in 2011 and start a trend that will see the Medicare population (and costs) expand rapidly with each passing year.

Policymakers are faced with several daunting challenges, including:

•      How to ensure access to quality healthcare for these new Medicare beneficiaries, considering that 40 percent of the nation’s physician population is approaching retirement age and experts say we already don’t have a sufficient supply of medical professionals to treat the millions of newly-insured as a result of health reform.

•     How to confront chronic disease, which is affecting the new generation of Medicare beneficiaries to a much greater degree than it did their parents and grandparents.  Escalating incidences of diabetes and heart disease are pushing healthcare costs skyward.

•      The costs associated with a greater demand for healthcare services such as knee and hip replacements that are desired by a more active generation of retirees.

We’re reaching the point, if we haven’t already, in which defending the status quo is an indefensible position.  The longer we go without addressing the challenges posed by the retirement of the Baby Boomers will mean having to choose between unpalatable draconian policy options.

It’s time for creative thinking and a national dialogue on how to reform Medicare to simultaneously strengthen quality and cost-efficient.  Some important work is already being done in this arena by a number of private sector healthcare organizations, and the new Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation – created as part of health reform – will also have a mandate to address both cost and quality.

Deficit reduction commissions and leaders have also focused on this issue and have proposed a number of ideas, including the use of premium support models to increase value through greater consumer engagement.

In the coming year, we need more of this discussion, not less.  How we address the challenges presented by the Baby Boom generation will be the dominant healthcare and economic issue of the 21st century.