07/30/2010 11:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Case of the Medicare What Ifs

Today, on Medicare's 45th birthday, I want to reflect on what the program means for me. Typically, people think of Medicare as a program that matters only for seniors. It is nearly universally available to Americans age 65 and older and pays for health care both in the event of a hospital emergency and for routine care, depending on what a person can afford. But Medicare matters not just to seniors. Medicare matters to children, to young adults and to Baby Boomers.

Medicare matters more than ever for my 83-year-old grandma who is very ill and, in the last few weeks, spent many days in and out of the hospital. My grandma lives with diabetes, high cholesterol and chronic heart problems. One of many grandchildren, I am largely on the periphery of her struggles. Living far away makes it hard to know the details or to be very helpful.

According to the Elder Economic Security Standard™ Index (Elder Index), health care for an older adult in good health costs an average of $234 dollars per month. In this respect, my grandma is lucky. She can afford the supplements that make Medicare a more comprehensive health plan. Though her out-of-pocket costs are high, it comforts me to know that Medicare is there for her. It is good to know that of all the things she is worrying about, affording her care is not one of them. So, Medicare is not just there for my grandma. Medicare is there for her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Still, many "what ifs" plague my family. What will happen when Medicare falls short? What if my grandma needs long-term care? What if she needs help on a daily basis and can't afford it? What if we can't help her with the cost? What if, after all those "what ifs", there's no other choice than a nursing home?

Thankfully, through health care reform, Medicare is significantly improved. Yet, there are still so many "what ifs". What if all seniors could afford comprehensive Medicare coverage? What if people age 55+ could access Medicare if they have no other health insurance? What if Medicare could help pay for some of the long-term care that only Medicaid covers? What if there were good options, both private and public, that made it so no one had to worry about affording health care or even long-term care? What if we lived in a country where all Americans could be healthy or be sick without a lingering case of the "what ifs"?