The chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee is questioning President Bush’s call for reform of the Social Security program.[@@]

The chairman, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., is suggesting as an alternative a savings plan for long term care as “an augmentation to Social Security payments.”

Bush wants to reform Social Security by cutting guaranteed benefits for younger workers and by creating a new system of privately managed retirement accounts.

Any Social Security reform bill will have to pass through Ways and Means before it can reach the House floor, and Thomas says opposition from Democrats makes the private account plan a “dead horse.”

Instead of creating a new system of private retirement accounts, Congress should consider adding a savings plan that taxpayers could use to pay for long term care and care for chronic health problems, Thomas says.

“What I’m trying to get people to do is get out of the narrow moving around of the pieces inside the Social Security box,” Thomas said at a forum on Bush’s second term. “If we miss this opportunity . . . I think we will have missed an opportunity that may not present itself for another 20 years.”

Jack Dolan, an official at the American Council of Life Insurers, Washington, says his group welcomes lawmakers’ interest in financial planning issues.

“We’ve been saying for a long time that Congress and the president should address our nation’s retirement security challenges on a comprehensive basis,” Dolan says. “Ensuring the Social Security system’s viability as well as boosting long-term savings and encouraging pension plan creation are each critical elements to any such initiative.”

Guy Bertsch, vice president of product development at UnumProvident Corp., Portland, Maine, is taking a similar position.

“We welcome the debate on all issues related to long term care and hope and believe there is a strong role for private LTC insurance going forward,” Bertsch says.

Bertsch emphasized his company’s support for tax breaks for employees who pay for LTC insurance at the worksite.

Americans for Long-Term Care Security, a coalition that represents 32 organizations that favor sales of private LTC insurance, is urging Thomas to support a new version of the LTC insurance tax break bill that Reps. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., and Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., introduced during the 108th Congress.