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WA’s long-term care benefit just got an important upgrade, but the program is also under threat

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WA’s long-term care benefit just got an important upgrade, but the program is also under threat

Mar 14, 2024 | 8:00 am ET
By Marguerite Ro Dr. Charles Mayer
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WA’s long-term care benefit just got an important upgrade, but the program is also under threat
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In the Washington Legislature’s short and busy session this year, lawmakers approved a measure addressing the most commonly requested change to the state’s new long-term care program – making the benefits portable.

This will have a big impact on anyone who lives and works in Washington state. Now, we’ll be able to keep our long-term care benefits, even if we leave the state for work, family, or retirement. Further paving the way for portability, 15 states are considering similar long-term care programs in response to the growing need.

None of us like to imagine ourselves or a loved one needing long-term care or without the resources to pay for that care. But the fact is 70% of us will need help with things like bathing, getting dressed, and managing meals and medication as a result of a serious injury, illness, disease or normal setbacks that can come along as we age. The vast majority of us have limited savings to pay for that help. 

Consumers, caregivers, public health and other experts developed our state’s new long-term care benefit – the WA Cares Fund – to meet a real and growing need. Unlike private long-term care insurance, we contribute a modest amount only while we are working, not after retirement or while taking time off for health or other reasons. Our benefit will help cover the costs of in-home care, home modifications like ramps and grab bars or mobility equipment. Working Washingtonians began contributing premiums last year, and benefits become available in 2026 should we experience a debilitating event.

As we look ahead to the November election, don’t be fooled by misleading messages from those who intentionally crafted Initiative 2124 to sound like a reasonable change to make the program voluntary. According to experts and actuarial analysis, the true impact of the initiative would be to kill the program, taking benefits away from more than 3 million workers.

Without our WA Cares benefits, what’s the alternative? While private long-term care insurance is the answer for some, if you qualify, you will likely face escalating premiums, especially while on a fixed income during retirement. The reality is that only about 3% of us have long-term care insurance because it’s so expensive. About half of non-elderly adults have a pre-existing condition, making them more likely to develop the need for long-term care and to be denied a policy by private long-term care insurance companies. 

How about saving for long-term care? Most people don’t have $500 in savings for emergencies, let alone the ability to save tens of thousands of dollars for their long-term care needs. According to The National Council on Aging, 80% of households with older adults are in such a financially precarious position that they “would be unable to absorb a financial shock such as long-term services and supports.” 

How about Medicare? Most people are surprised to learn that neither Medicare nor Medicare Supplemental Insurance cover long-term care expenses. That’s one reason why so many family members often leave their careers to care for a loved one. In fact, there are more than 800,000 unpaid family caregivers in Washington  – mostly women – who not only lose their income from leaving their jobs but also end up spending about $7,200 a year to cover care supplies out of their own pockets. With Washington’s long-term care benefit, we can now pay a family member to be our caregiver, helping to shore up that lost income.

Some say there’s always Medicaid. But Medicaid requires us to drain our assets and savings before we’re eligible. It should be the last resort because as state-funded Medicaid demand rises, it’s taxpayers who ultimately pay the cost. 

Washington’s long-term care benefit is a safety net, like Social Security. It has been extensively studied for financial stability, and an independent actuarial analysis says the program is on solid ground. Taking away Washington’s long-term care benefits without a viable alternative means 3 million workers will lose our benefits and be forced to cover the costs of long-term care on our own.

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