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What About Health Care and Alzheimer’s?

What Clinton didn't tell older voters in July and what may lie ahead


Part of the Election 2016 Special Report

Hillary Clinton had a lot of boxes to check in her Democratic National Convention acceptance speech on July 28. For starters, she had to reintroduce herself to America, soften her image, celebrate the historic moment, outline her plan for the economy and make the case that Donald Trump has no business occupying the Oval Office. So she could be forgiven for a few omissions.

I had reason to expect, however, that Clinton — a boomer and the first woman to be a major party presidential nominee — would have spent more time talking about older Americans and health care. After all, health care is an issue she’s passionate about and for which she’s still wearing battle scars.

Missing From the Acceptance Speech

As she noted in her speech, more than 20 years ago, First Lady Hillary Clinton headed a task force to develop a comprehensive plan that would provide universal health care for all Americans. (She acknowledged that the plan failed, but she then went on to help create the Children’s Health Insurance Program covering 8 million kids a year.)

Alzheimer's is her moonshot proposal...Secretary Clinton plans to invest $20 billion over the next decade to find an effective treatment for Alzheimer's.

— Ann O'Leary, health adviser to Hillary Clinton

But beyond that, Secretary Clinton’s references to helping Americans 50+ deal with health care, caregiving and Alzheimer’s were pretty scarce.

Two events that week had me convinced that Clinton would inject such topics into her speech.

Tim Kaine and Alzheimer’s

When Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine gave his Vice Presidential acceptance speech, he delivered a phrase near the top that you don’t often hear in high-profile political addresses. Kaine said: “… for my parents and in-laws and every senior citizen who hopes for a dignified retirement with health care and research to end diseases like Alzheimer’s…”

A member of the Senate Committee on Aging, Kaine seemed to suggest that older Americans and Alzheimer’s would be priorities in a Clinton/Kaine administration.

And just hours earlier, that prospect was underscored at a health care panel sponsored by The Washington Post that I attended in Center City Philadelphia. (It was one of many policy sessions around town attracting those delegates who weren’t hunting for the best cheesesteak.)

The Hillary Clinton Alzheimer’s ‘Moonshot’

One of the panelists, Clinton’s Senior Adviser on Health Ann O’Leary, told me that since formally launching her campaign, the Democratic nominee has been determined to make finding a cure for Alzheimer’s “one of the biggest issues” of her presidential run.

“In some sense, Alzheimer’s is her moonshot proposal,” said O’Leary, the founding executive director of Berkeley law school’s Center on Health, Economic and Family Security program. “Vice President Biden’s moonshot is cancer, which she fully supports, but Secretary Clinton plans to invest $20 billion over the next decade to find an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s.”

That $2 billion-a-year proposed Alzheimer’s budget is far higher than the $936 million appropriated for this year and $1.4 billion for next year.

O’Leary told me that Clinton sees Alzheimer’s as “an absolutely fundamental issue we need to work on and resolve, given the number of people being diagnosed with the disease, the devastation not just to the patient but to all the caregivers and family surrounding the patient and the high percentage of Medicare spending going to Alzheimer’s and related dementias.”

Clinton’s Other Health Care Proposals

O’Leary also noted Clinton’s proposal to expand Medicare by letting people 55 and older opt in “so we can have greater competition.” She added that Clinton has additional robust proposals to give people 55 and older a tax credit towards high out-of-pocket health care costs and a cap on their out-of-pocket prescription drug costs.

Bob Blancato, who chairs the American Society on Aging and is executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs (a Next Avenue writer, too), wondered the same things I did about Clinton’s speech.

Not lost on him, Blancato told me, was that “it’s an older woman” who’s the first major party presidential nominee.

Making the Pitch to Older Voters

“While specifics on older adult issues were limited in the Clinton speech to a call to expand Social Security,” Blancato said, if the campaign’s theme is ‘Join Us,’ then “Clinton/Kaine should go out and make that pitch to older voters.”

Might older voters really expect to see action on health care issues in Washington if Clinton gets elected? There’s reason for skepticism. After all, as The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty put it at the forum I attended, Obamacare has been “the cornerstone of the Republican policy attacks.”

O’Leary and other speakers at the briefing, however, were surprisingly hopeful. They believe there’s room for compromise on health care reform.

Health Care Reform Prospects

“It’s a little counterintuitive, given we’re in the most contentious part of the election campaign,” said Tom Daschle, the former Democratic Senate Majority Leader and co-founder of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

His rationale is based on his experience. “I had the good fortune to be Majority Leader when Hillary came to the Senate. She had an enormous ability to work across the aisle,” said Daschle. “I could give you the names of several Republicans who would say, ‘Hillary and I could work together.'”

O’Leary also noted that Trump’s Vice Presidential nominee, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, “put politics aside and expanded Medicaid in his state.”

Of course, the chance to fine-tune Obamacare will be dependent, not only on a Clinton victory in November, but the ultimate makeup of the House and Senate.

Dan Hilferty, president and CEO of Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia (the only health insurer on The Post’s panel), deftly skirted politics. He said that no matter who’s elected, there’s an opportunity to combine the positive thinking on both sides to further health care reform.

Daschle conceded, “If this was a football field, we’d be on the 30-yard line. We have a lot of yards to go. There will be fumbles and lost yardage occasionally.” But, he added, “The enormity of the challenge is just huge, as much as any challenge we have in public policy today.”

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