By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News
Care funding is currently means-tested
Hopes of reaching a cross-party deal on funding social care appear to be dead in the water.
The three main parties met on Wednesday for talks hosted by the merged Age Concern and Help the Aged charity.
But despite pleas from council chiefs for unity, fresh rows have erupted about policy differences.
And the Tories, who have dubbed one of the government's proposals a death tax, made it clear at the meeting they were unwilling to compromise.
The latest talks were organised on the back of a Department of Health summit three weeks ago which was boycotted by the Tories.
The meeting, which involved senior local government officials, charities and older people, is likely to be the last opportunity for the parties to meet on the issue before the expected start of an election campaign next month.
WHERE THE PARTIES STAND
Labour - Put forward three proposals - all of which involve the state providing a basic level of care which would be topped up by either personal contributions, a voluntary insurance scheme or compulsory levy. The third option - dubbed a death tax - is said to be favoured by ministers
Tories - Proposed an £8,000 voluntary insurance model to cover residential care costs. Now drawing up plans for a voluntary scheme to cover domestic care, such as help washing, eating and dressing in the home
Lib Dems - Initially supportive of free personal care - like Scotland has introduced - but now want a "partnership" whereby state pays some and individual tops this up in some way. Open to compulsory levy
The issue has been brewing since ministers published a series of proposals last summer to reform England's means-tested system, which most experts agree is falling apart.
Among the plans was the idea to introduce a compulsory levy, possibly up to £20,000, which could be taken from a person's estate after death
The Conservatives vehemently oppose this idea, dubbing it a "death tax".
They have claimed it would penalise families who want to look after elderly relatives themselves. Instead, they favour a voluntary scheme.
On the eve of Wednesday's meeting, they put out new figures which suggested the true cost of the plan could amount to £30,000 if benefits such as attendance allowance are cut to help pay for a new system.
Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said: "Labour are going in completely the wrong direction."
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems said the Tories' plans would only benefit the wealthy after calculating that two-thirds of pensioners do not have the £8,000 to pay for the insurance plan the party has proposed.
Norman Lamb, the Lib Dem health spokesman, said: "The reality is that Conservative social care plans are unworkable, unfair and unaffordable."
The Tories rejected the analysis.
The claim and counterclaim came as social services directors urged the parties to stop the "political bun fight".
Jenny Owen, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, said: "We really need a united front on the issue. Whoever wins the election will be faced with reforming the system and that is why we need common ground."
She suggested a third way could be found whereby a voluntary scheme is introduced at first with a compulsory scheme kicking in if take-up reaches a significant proportion - perhaps 70% - of the eligible population.
While the government and Lib Dems are believed to be open to this option, the Tories dismissed it at the meeting.
A spokesman for Mr Lansley said: "A compulsory scheme is a non-starter for us. The government now needs to publish its plan and we can debate it during the election and let the people decide."
The government has promised to set out its favoured option in the coming weeks.
But a Department of Health spokeswoman said any changes that may be made, including taking away current benefits such as attendance allowance, would be about making the system better.
She added: "It is premature to start second-guessing the blueprint we will shortly set out for a new National Care Service."
The stalemate between the parties comes as a poll of more than 1,000 adults by Age Concern and Help the Aged revealed that nine in 10 want politicians to work together to reform the system, with many saying it will be among the most important issues in the election.