Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who died late Tuesday at 77, shepherded pivotal healthcare legislation through Congress. His best accomplishment may have been yet to come, according to the leader of a major long-term care association.

“The CLASS Act would have potentially been his biggest long-standing contribution because it affects so many people now and in the future,” Larry Minnix, president and CEO of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, told me.

Minnix is referring to the long-term disability program that is part of the Senate’s healthcare reform bill, the “Affordable Health Choices Act.” The program, which AAHSA endorses, would allow people to pay into a trust that would offer cash benefits if they become disabled. While it would not replace Medicaid, which pays for the majority of long-term care, it would help alleviate Medicaid’s costs.

Minnix noted that healthcare and particularly the needs of the vulnerable were near and dear to the eight-term senator. Indeed, Kennedy was instrumental in passing the country’s largest healthcare programs since 1962, when he came into office. Among these were the Older Americans Act and the Medicare Part D prescription drug program. Kennedy also helped create Meals on Wheels and worked to enact the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). He also took a leadership role in passing the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993.

Kennedy called healthcare reform “the cause of my life.”

The CLASS Act that appears in the Senate bill was a collaboration between Kennedy’s office and AAHSA, Minnix explained. The concept was Kennedy’s, but it was geared initially toward younger disabled people. About two years ago, AAHSA got involved with Kennedy’s staff and introduced a financing model that is now a part of legislation, according to Minnix. The association also encouraged Kennedy’s office to include older adults in the program. It did.

“It was mostly done through our staffs working together,” Minnix said, noting that historically there has been a tension between the younger disabled community and the aging community.

The senator’s office “brought some constructive tension to that that led to real collaboration,” Minnix said.

The senator’s most significant contribution in the Senate?

His “perseverance around meeting the need,” Minnix answered. “It seemed like meeting the need was the important thing and you work out the politics next.”

That spirit of cooperation would certainly be welcome in Washington right about now.