Boomers climb onto Social Security rolls

Sunday, November 25, 2007

YARMOUTH, Maine - Like it or not, here they come. Last month, the first of America's baby boomers filed for Social Security, heralding a wave of beneficiaries that numbers 77 million and promises to tax the nation's healthcare system like never before.

For years, the HME industry has regarded the graying of America as a welcome development. But along with the undisputed boom to the roll calls of those who need health care, there are suggestions that the boomers could do some busting, as well.

"You're going to make less money per patient than ever before, but more patients than ever are going to run you over," said Tom Inman, president of Virginia Home Medical.

Suppliers like Inman are cautiously optimistic that happy days for health care may be in the offing, but at a different price.

"We all take our sales numbers and assume that with X more people, we'll get X more dollars," said Jim Walsh, president of VGM Management. "But with more people, the insurers simply aren't going to have more money to pay."

Walsh and others wonder where the money's going to come from to pay for all this health care. One obvious source is the boomers themselves.

"Because of the financial wealth of the boomers, the cash-pay segment will become healthier, especially as Medicare cuts benefits and pays for less in the future to remain solvent," said Mike Kuller, president of All Star Oxygen Services.

Kuller signals a level of optimism that has echoed throughout the industry for years: The baby boomers are used to getting what they want, and they'll pay for it, too.

"Baby boomers have distinguished themselves as being more independent and wanting things their way," he said.

Cindy Ciardo believes that independent spirit will manifest itself particularly in a desire for products that enable ongoing freedom--bath safety, ADLs, skin care, pressure relief, lift chairs and scooters.

Baby boomers are more likely not only to insist on their independence but also to pay for it, says Ciardo. That willingness contrasts with seniors today, who tend to be more frugal and who are more apt to dedicate cash resources to travel and entertainment, not health care, she said.

"Boomers are more educated, spend their disposable income more freely, emphasize quality of life and demand the best," said Ciardo. "They know what they want and are willing to go after it. They want to continue to live healthy and active lives, and are willing to spend money to do it. It's not that they aren't perceptive enough not to try to get the best for no additional cost, but in the end, they will pay the additional out-of-pocket costs to get what they want."