Caregiver training back on the ballot

OLYMPIA — Washington state voters overwhelmingly approved expanded background checks and training for long-term care workers in 2008.

Now they’re being asked to do it again in the middle of a budget crisis.

The Legislature has for three years delayed the implementation of I-1029 because of budget cuts. But advocates for the measure contend the problems in the system are only getting worse and that the cost to fix the issues is minimal.

“There is some cost to the state, but the voters have already made it clear that it’s a priority,” said Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for the new iteration, Initiative 1163. “We’re confident that the voters are again going to say that this needs to happen.”

Gov. Chris Gregoire is among those who oppose the initiative because the new spending would have to be offset by cuts elsewhere, spokesman Cory Curtis said. The state is looking to cut $2 billion to fill a budget shortfall, and Gregoire has called lawmakers back for a special session starting at the end of November.

Lawmakers have been exploring additional reductions in teacher salaries, releasing state prisoners early and eliminating virtually all substance abuse services.

The care workers measure would cost about $18 million over the next two years, according to a state analysis.

State law requires that long-term care workers receive criminal background checks, but those checks look for convictions only in Washington. Workers who have lived in the state less than three years undergo an FBI fingerprint check. The new plan would require all new workers to undergo federal background checks starting in 2012. Lawmakers had pushed implementation until 2014.

If the initiative passes, the Legislature wouldn’t be able to delay it again without a two-thirds majority.

The measure would also begin requiring more training, including 75 hours of basic training for long-term care workers, instead of the currently required 35 hours. Workers would be paid wages for attending the training classes. The state auditor’s office would also be directed to conduct twice-a-year performance audits of the long-term, in-home care program.

Supported living workers, who provide services for people with developmental disabilities, would face strengthened job rules in 2016. Kaushik said those workers have separate training, and initiative backers want to assess for a few years whether it is sufficient. If it is, they would support a legislative change to prevent the 2016 rules from going into effect.

Advocates of the initiative are concerned that seniors and people with disabilities are vulnerable to fraud and abuse. They say the background checks and training are commonsense rules. The initiative in 2008 passed with 73 percent of the vote.

Cindi Laws, executive director of the Washington State Residential Care Council, said that more training isn’t going to prevent caregivers with nefarious intentions from taking advantage of seniors and that the industry is always improving the training that is available. She said the state needs to do a better job of investigating places that have repeated and serious violations, and she wants regulators to take swifter action when there is a major problem.

“We want those kind of people out of business,” she said.

Laws said the extra background check is not worth the cost and time.

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