Too many people experience "stress and bewilderment" trying to acquire social care, a report says.
The independent Commission for Social Care Inspection (CSCI) is critical of existing eligibility arrangements, saying the system needs reform because of its lack of transparency and fairness.
It is also critical of the criteria's incompatibility with new approaches based around self-assessment, individual choice and control as the number of people needing care steadily increases.
"The questions about the role of our care and support services in future, including how they will be funded, grow in urgency - as this report shows," CSCI chair Dame Denise Platt said.
"Politicians across the political spectrum, both nationally and locally, have a responsibility to work towards an enduring solution."
Dame Denise says action needs to be taken to reform the procedures which "defeat many" trying to get publicly-funded social care.
The report's conclusions were supported by older person's charity Help the Aged, whose senior policy officer for health and social care, Lizzie McLennan, described the social care system as "confusing" and "scary".
"Care should be provided for everyone who needs it - not just for the poorest or those in the most critical need," she said.
"It is crucial that we move away from someone's income being the deciding factor in the care they receive."
Meanwhile Neil Hunt, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, described the fair access to care services system as "broken and crumbling".
The report backs better arrangements offering universal support, an improved response to people needing assistance and a revised way of allocating public funds to individuals to resolve the current problems.
A Department of Health spokesperson said the government was preparing a response to the report.