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How America Can Afford to Grow Older: A Vision for the Future

the National Press Club, Newsmaker Luncheon

Can America afford to grow older? And can we do so with intergenerational fairness—that is, without sticking our children and grandchildren with the bills? This is one of the most important issues of our time.

David Walker, Comptroller General of the United States, stood at this podium and said that, "The U.S. faces a long-term deficit that will only increase as the baby boomers retire. The resulting financial imbalance will test the nation's spending and tax policies."

Columnist Robert Samuelson wrote that, "the central distributional issue of our time is not between rich and poor. It is between retirees and non-retirees."

And a front page story by Jonathan Weisman in the Washington Post just last week declared that an "Aging Population Poses Global Challenges."

Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, the Congressional Budget Office and others have reached similar conclusions.

Clearly, there are challenges with an aging society. So again, the question: can America afford to grow older without economic train wrecks, without pitting the needs of the old against the young, and without leaving future generations to clean up the mess?

Of course we can. We are the richest nation in the world and the best equipped in virtually every way to reinvent our systems and programs. And besides, what is the alternative?

When all the babies showed up after World War II, did we say, "Well, sorry, we can't afford this demographic change…can't afford to build schools and train pediatricians and cope with the costs of all this?" No, we made the necessary investments, and as a result, become a better society and the most powerful and influential nation in the world.

Today's America can afford to grow older, we will benefit from it as a society, and AARP will play a constructive and important role in making it happen. I came to AARP five years ago for two reasons:

1. The inspiring mission of improving the quality of life for all as we age, by leading positive social change and delivering value to our members.
2. The demographic revolution of boomers coming into their older years meant that AARP could play an important role in the changes that would inevitably follow.

And now, the time is here. As a nation, it's time to cut the doom and gloom and attack the issues, following John Gardner's approach. He said that, "We are all faced with a series of great opportunities, brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems."

As we look at an aging America, we face three great opportunities:
1. An opportunity to transform the nation's health-care system;
2. An opportunity to strengthen our retirement system;
3. An opportunity to create more livable communities.

First, our health-care system is out of whack. Dr. Henry Simmons, President of the National Coalition on Health, calls it "A Perfect Storm," with three dangerous trends combined: rising costs, increasing millions of Americans without insurance coverage and poor quality of health care delivery.

Transforming the health-care system is perhaps the greatest challenge facing our nation today. But it may well be the most important thing we can do to improve the quality of life for everyone, as well as to deliver care more rationally and cost-effectively.

Many people look at the growing cost of Medicare and Medicaid, along with the aging of the population, and conclude that these programs are unsustainable budget breakers.

But most factors that contribute to the rising costs of Medicare and Medicaid—growth in population and utilization, costs of new technology and drugs, and soaring prices—also drive up the total cost of health care. This affects everyone—individuals, businesses, and government at every level.

Look at Medicaid, the nation's largest health insurance program, providing necessary care for one in every six people. It is the safety net for children in poverty, for our aging parents and grandparents needing long-term care, for those with disabilities, for other vulnerable people. It helps pay the bills for two-thirds of the 1.4 million people in nursing homes.

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