Editorial: Use payroll tax to set up long-term care benefit

By The Herald Editorial Board

The numbers are enough to make you feel your age.

About 70 percent of Americans 65 and older will need long-term care services, such as a nursing home or in-home care. Neither Medicare nor most health insurance plans pay for long-term care. Insurance is available but is unaffordable for most, meaning that more than 90 percent of seniors are uninsured for long-term care needs.

While the median retirement savings for seniors are about $136,000, those 65 and older may face average costs of more than $260,000 over their lifetimes for long-time care. The average cost of in-home care in the state is about $56,000 a year and $96,000 annually for nursing home care.

For the uninsured, the options for those needing long-term care are limited. They either must spend down their life savings to qualify for Medicaid — support for which in Congress and the White House is now uncertain — or rely on family members to provide care, which often requires spouses or adult children to quit work, adversely effecting their own incomes and their ability to save for their own retirement and care. Currently, there are an estimated 850,000 unpaid family caregivers in the state.

The youngest baby boomers among us will reach 65 by 2030, and with that aging wave, the percentage of seniors in the nation and Washington state continues to grow. As of last year there were more than 1 million seniors in the state, comprising 15 percent of the population. In ten years, that figure will near 1.6 million seniors. By 2040, seniors, at nearly 2 million, will make up 22 percent of the state’s population.

A range of state and national legislative efforts are needed to address this and related issues for aging Americans, but lawmakers are considering legislation with bipartisan support that would provide a long-term care insurance benefit for seniors.

Similar to the payroll tax that supports the worker’s compensation benefit, House Bill 1663, the Long-Term Care Trust Act, would levy a 0.49 percent tax, deducted from workers’ paychecks that would fund a long-term care trust. Those who have worked at least three of the last six years or ten years total would be eligible to draw from the fund for long-term care. A worker could qualify for up to $100 a day for a total of 365 days over her or his lifetime, allowing the worker and family to avoid or delay having to rely on Medicaid, providing a savings to that crucial program.

It would also avoid or delay the need for family members to leave their jobs to care for parents or others in need of long-term care, benefiting the families, employers and the state’s economy.

In a commentary in The Seattle Times, Reps. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma and Norm Johnson, R-Yakima, wrote that the legislation has the support of the AARP, the Alzheimer’s Association, the Washington Health Care Association, the state Long-term Care Ombudsman Program and others. Similar legislation has been discussed in Hawaii and Minnesota.

The legislation was heard before the House Health Care and Wellness Committee on Wednesday, but must be advanced to House floor by Friday’s cutoff for bills.

Some will balk at seeing another deduction from their paychecks, but providing for our own long-term care is a responsibility we owe to our children and one that we should no longer avoid.

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