The following editorial originally appeared in The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash.
Despite incontrovertible evidence that there’s no escaping it, growing old is a force that most Americans tend to live in denial of. A clear sign of this willful blindness is that roughly 90 percent of adults are financially unprepared for the long-term care they’ll probably need someday.
According to the National Institutes of Health, 70 percent of people over age 65 will need long-term support at some point, whether at home or in a care facility. Combine that with the “Gray Tsunami” of Baby Boomers making landfall, the Trump administration continuing to threaten Medicaid cuts and the destabilization of the private long-term care insurance market over the last two decades.
That’s a recipe for disaster as our country ages not so gracefully.
Tacoma Democratic Rep. Laurie Jinkins is the lead sponsor of a timely proposal in the state Legislature this year: House Bill 1087, aka the Long-Term Care Trust Act. This plan for an employee-funded safety net, which Jinkins has worked on for years, has passed the House and deserves the thoughtful consideration it’s getting in the Senate.
It could provide relief for older Washingtonians seeking a modest sum for long-term care in their twilight years; for sandwich-generation family members trying to make sound decisions for elderly parents; and for taxpayers to the tune of an estimated $470 million in state Medicaid savings by 2052.
Medicaid is designed as the long-term safety net for seniors and the disabled, but it doesn’t kick in until recipients essentially have no assets left. For Jinkins, that raised a fundamental question: “How do we prevent people from having to spend themselves into poverty before they get care?” she said during recent committee testimony.
The answer: Help Washington workers help themselves, in a way that expands on Washington’s new Family and Medical Leave program. Starting in 2022, adult employees would pay a 0.58 percent premium on their wages — unlike family and medical leave, employers wouldn’t contribute — and would be eligible for the trust account after three years paying into it.
They’d have $36,500 available to help cover the cost of assistance with so-called “activities of daily living,” such as eating, bathing, toilet help and mobility.
The average Pierce County worker would pay about 13 cents an hour, based on the state’s most recent median wage calculations. (Though wages will surely rise before 2022.) Think of it as a small investment in confronting a big problem that Puget Sounders can’t afford to ignore.
According to Genworth Financial’s 2018 cost of care survey, the average rate of an assisted living facility in the greater Seattle area was $69,000 (compared to $48,000 nationally) and a semi-private nursing home room was $110,913 ($89,297 nationally).
That’s a tough pill to swallow for any senior, let alone those on fixed incomes.
Let’s postulate best-case scenarios for a moment and assume you never require that level of care. The beauty of the proposed trust account is its flexibility. You may need other assistance — say, a home wheelchair ramp. You also could tap the fund to compensate unpaid family caregivers; Washington has an estimated 850,000 of these tireless individuals.
Some employees might not like Jinkins’ proposal, coming on the heels of their new Family and Medical Leave contributions. Starting this year, a flat rate of 0.4 percent of wages is shared between employees and employers. We get that many GOP lawmakers are reluctant to approve another hit to paychecks, though a handful of moderate Republicans have lent support.
But as Washington gets ready to start disbursing Family and Medical Leave benefits next year, a long-term care trust account could bolster employees’ peace of mind as they enter a different, but equally challenging, phase of life.
It won’t solve America’s looming aging crisis, but it’s a good step for our state.