Commentary: Help caregivers provide care for seniors, others

By Jim Lord

The company I founded and run — First Choice In-Home Care — provides in-home direct care services to 1,400 vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities throughout central Puget Sound. My wife and I formed the company more than 15 years ago because of our personal experience; as parents of a son with developmental disability, we struggled to find and keep qualified, dedicated caregivers.

Most of our clients are low-income and their care is funded through Medicaid. Thus, we rely on our state Legislature to adopt good policy that ensures adequate funding so we can provide quality care to our clients and maintain a stable and qualified caregiver workforce.

Unfortunately, neither of the proposed budgets in the House nor Senate fully live up to the needs.

The Senate was further away from providing what is needed. While they should be praised for providing a small but extremely important increase in the reimbursement rate paid to home care agencies like ours, who employ and supervise the home care aides, they fell dramatically short in providing what is needed to adequately compensate the caregivers themselves.

This compensation level is needed to stabilize the workforce of home care aides and nursing assistants who care for our vulnerable clients. Specifically, the Senate budget failed to fund the raises and benefits negotiated by state-paid caregivers, which would gradually raise the wages for all caregivers to a living wage of at least $15 and hour by 2019. The Senate budget also proposes a $28 million cut to current health benefits, which will force large increases to out-of-pocket costs for our low-wage direct care employees.

The House came closer to meeting the necessary needs. It fully funds home care worker health care benefits and the home care union contract to ensure a stable workforce. Unfortunately, the House failed to fund the small increase in the reimbursement rate paid to home care agencies, which is a much-needed restoration of funds cut during the 2008 recession.

The citizens of the state of Washington are known nationwide for always seeking to right wrongs, resist changes that cause harm and recognize the importance of being paid a living wage for the valuable work we do; whether that work is in the food service industry or providing needed personal care to our vulnerable population.

The best money we can spend to stabilize our home care workforce is by paying them a living wage. These valuable members of our community do the work that matters every day and ensure our vulnerable population’s health and safety needs are being met. Paying the home care workforce $15 an hour will greatly increase worker retention rates; when workers remain on-the-job, the need for new caregivers who require training, and certified home care aides is reduced, as are the costs associated with hiring, training and certifying.

Additionally, the cost to fully fund our successful home care aide training program is money very well spent. For many home care agencies, this training program coupled with recent increases in wages has played an important role in increasing worker retention rates by as much as 30 percent over the last few years.

The best money we can spend is to fund our home care agencies as these organizations provide a safety net and the supervised personal care services needed to keep our seniors and our adults and children with disabilities in the comfort, warmth and safety of their own homes. What does this funding pay for? Home care agencies provide critical client case management, coordinating the care plans and ensuring the health, wellness and safety of each client we serve. Home care agencies are responsible for hiring, training and supervising home care aides, including making sure they have properly vetted background checks and are trained, certified and eligible to provide personal care services.

As we move further into this special session, the House and the Senate should support the negotiated home care contract that would strengthen the workforce of home care aides who care for our vulnerable by providing them with a living wage of $15 an hour by 2019.

We owe our seniors, our vulnerable adults and children and our caregivers a future that is responsive and respectful to their needs. To accomplish this, we need our elected representatives to work and come together to do the right thing.

Jim Lord is the executive director of First Choice In-Home Care, a home care agency that provides personal care services throughout Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.

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