Some suggest the rising cost of Medicare, the federal insurance plan for those aged 65 and older, will drive the national debt to a point of no return.
And still others have suggested that cost pressures could ultimately result in reduced health benefits for all – or a reallocation of benefits in which higher-income people receive less coverage.
Though dire, such speculation is not without merit.
At 78 million strong, the oldest of the Boomers – born between 1946 and 1964 – are already making unsustainable demands on federal entitlement programs -- Medicare and Medicaid.
In its Long-Term Outlook for Medicare, Medicaid and Total Health Care Spending, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports that spending for those programs will account for 3 percent each of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009.
By 2035, in the absence of change, spending for Medicare alone (which is more likely to be impacted by aging Boomers) will have more than doubled to 8 percent, and by 2080 it will have grown to 15 percent.
THE ME GENERATION
Part of the challenge, of course, is that the post-war Boomer generation simply spends more on health care than their parents did.
They visit the doctor more, they consume more services, and they aren’t afraid to use their $7 trillion in collective wealth to improve their quality of life.
From physical therapy, to cosmetic surgery, to the latest in life-saving technology, Boomers just aren’t built to grow old gracefully.
BOOMERS AREN’T THE PROBLEM
Yet, for all the finger pointing by younger taxpayers who are footing the Medicare bill, researchers insist it’s not just the Boomers to blame.
While the aging population may contribute to the healthcare crisis, it’s the emergence of costly new drugs, diagnostics and medical technologies that created it, says David Cutler, professor of economics at Harvard University.
“The biggest hurdle for health care spending is that everyone spends more at every age whether you’re 50 or 2, and that will continue” he says.
A good example? Stenting, in which surgeons insert a mesh tube into narrowed or weakened arteries.
“That procedure was originally developed for a small number of people who needed it, but now it’s given prophylactically,” says Cutler. “The aging population is not by itself the only problem we face.”
Indeed, the CBO’s report shows the impact of the Boomers starts to wane after 2035, but healthcare spending per capita will continue to climb for the next 45 years.