Lamm speaks on age- old challenges

by Jason Casell | 7/27/95 5:00am

With his sleeves rolled up and sweat glistening from his brow, Montgomery Fellow Richard Lamm looked ready to start work on solving the problems facing an aging American society.

Lamm delivered a speech titled "The Challenge of an Aging Society: Infinite Needs, Finite Resources" to a capacity crowd of over 130 people in the Rockefeller Center for the Social Sciences Tuesday night.

"Two demographic patterns endlessly haunt me -- the changing ethnic composition ... and the absolutely staggering change in the average age in the United States," Lamm said.

According to Lamm, who serves as the director of the Center for Public Policy and Contemporary Issues at the University of Denver, the average American's life expectancy has increased by 29 years since 1900, at the rate of three months per year.

Only Sweden and Norway have elderly populations proportionally as great as the United States, Lamm said.

Referring to himself as a "reformed politician," the former three-term governor of Colorado addressed his topic with a sense of humor that kept the crowd laughing intermittently throughout his speech.

Lamm said the fastest growing population in the United States is people more than 100 years old.

"Willard Scott gets 400 letters a week," Lamm said, referring to the Today show weatherman who announces birthdays of people turning 100 on the television program.

Citing statistics on transparency slides, Lamm said the United States spends 11 times more on people over the age of 65 than on children.

"Leona Helmsley is on Medicare, and 30 percent of children have never seen a dentist," Lamm said.

Lamm said ethical considerations make choosing what to do with the elderly a difficult process.

"What do you do with a 90-year-old with a heart condition dying in a nursing home?" he asked. "We should never abandon anyone -- no matter what age."

Shifting his focus to health care for the elderly, Lamm said between one-fourth and one-third of the total amount of health care expenses in a person's life are spent in the last year.

"We give a lot of people expensive deaths," he said.

Calling Social Security "a decreasingly succulent feast," Lamm said the Social Security pension fund will be bankrupt by the year 2028.

Medicare will be broke by 2002 and disability insurance will run out of money by 2005, he said.

"What we have here is a whole series of programs, chain letters to the future, of a magnitude that has never been faced by society," Lamm said.

Lamm said the current system in which Medicare pays approximately four dollars in benefits for every dollar spent is "unsustainable."

He suggested privatizing Social Security and raising the retirement age so that people could work past the age of 65, relying on their salaries or insurance, rather than the government to pay for their health care needs.

"There are no happy choices around us -- we have demagogically locked ourselves in," Lamm said. "We simply have not developed a culture that can make hard decisions."

Lamm also said the increasing number of lawsuits has contributed to the current problems in the health care system.

"In Mexico, they have a saying -- 'May your life be filled with lawyers,'" he said. "We simply are spending way too much money suing each other."