By: Linda Vanderwerf
West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — Long-term care is “the big elephant in the room” during Congress’s deliberations of health care reform, in the belief of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

“No one is talking about it,” Klobuchar said at a roundtable discussion about elderly care Monday evening at Rice Care Center in Willmar. More than 40 people were on hand for the meeting.

Yet a coming upsurge in the nation’s elderly population makes it a vital issue, she said.

Klobuchar talked about the growing needs of the nation’s elderly population, which will continue to grow as the Baby Boom ages.

One of the goals of health care reform is to increase efficiency of health care providers across the nation.

In doing so, efficient, low-cost states like Minnesota could be recognized and rewarded for their efforts at keeping health care more affordable.

As the population grows, so does the stress on informal, unpaid caregivers, she said.

Klobuchar was joined on the panel by Tony Ogdahl, administrator of Rice Care Center, Bunne Frost-Johnston of Bethesda Health and Housing and two informal caregivers, Bev Abbet and Becky Hauptli.

Abbet and Hauptli spoke about the demands and the rewards of caring for their aging parents.

Hauptli asked Klobuchar to try to interject some “common sense and reason” into health care regulations. Some areas seem overregulated, she said, and eligibility questions can plague middle class families and caregivers.

“There’s always a group in the center that seems to get dropped through the cracks,” she said.

Abbet said her father qualified for assistance from his long-term care insurance because he had dementia. There may have been no coverage for his other health problems without the dementia, she said.

Serving as power of attorney for her parents has been a big responsibility, too, she said. It was difficult for her, an accountant, to navigate all the paperwork for the long-term care insurance, she added.

“We gain little financial reward but lots of blessings from taking care of our families,” Hauptli said.

Klobuchar thanked the women for sharing their stories and praised them for their efforts.

“You would do it no matter what, but it doesn’t mean we can’t make it easier,” she said.

Klobuchar described several bills she has introduced and cosponsored in an effort to help caregivers and people who purchase long-term care insurance.

The Age Act would give caregivers a $1,200 tax credit. “It doesn’t cover everything, but it’s a step in the right direction,” she said.

When it comes to long-term care insurance, Klobuchar and other senators hope to require companies to provide a one-page summary describing what a policy covers.

Those who have the insurance often don’t know what their policies cover, she said, and the summary would help prevent misunderstandings.

More people should have long-term care insurance, she said, and she hopes to see people able to use pre-tax earnings to pay their premiums, much as many people do for health insurance premiums.

Ogdahl, who has been a caregiver as well as a nursing home administrator, praised efforts to help caregivers. “It’s nice to know that someone besides us thinks our time is worth something,” he said.

Frost-Johnston said clarification of long-term care coverage is needed. In her work with adult day services, she has seen people who have paid premiums for years only to find that their policies don’t cover what they expected, she said.

“The policies are all very different,” she said. “The qualifications can be hard to meet.”

When Klobuchar asked about problems unique to rural areas, transportation was the first issue raised. Funding for the local senior transportation program is always in jeopardy, Frost-Johnston said.

Ogdahl also pointed to the “spotty” nature of services in less populated areas of the state.

Abbet suggested that there should be some regulation of what insurance agents tell people to sell long-term care insurance. She doesn’t like to see government involved in everything, “but this needs some oversight,” she added.

“This is very helpful to me,” Klobuchar said after the meeting. She said she appreciated hearing the personal stories and hearing about needs in rural areas.

The Willmar gathering was the third such meeting Klobuchar has held this month. She also discussed elder care in Rochester and St. Paul.