The Washington Legislature should protect affordable health care for home-care workers who earn just over $10 per hour, write guest columnists David Rolf and Ryan Jacobsen. Yet the proposed budgets appear poised to do the opposite.
WHEN President Obama signed the health-care bill, he committed to providing health-care coverage to 32 million Americans who are currently uninsured.
Valerie Anderson-Webb, a 43-year-old home-care aide in Spokane, is celebrating this victory because she knows that home-care workers like her have a lot to gain from this legislation. A cancer survivor, Valerie knows what it is like to be one of those 32 million Americans without coverage. “It’s like a roller-coaster ride that you don’t want to get on,” she says.
Tens of thousands of workers like Valerie provide support to low-income seniors and people with disabilities — providing dignity to individuals at the end of life and preventing more expensive institutionalization. For this physically and emotionally demanding work, home-care workers earn just over minimum wage and only receive health benefits if they work at least half time. And even then, they receive benefits only for themselves, not for their families.
But just as the promise of health-care reform and affordable health care is on the horizon, home-care workers like Valerie face losing what little they currently have.
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Since most long-term-care services are paid through Medicaid, health care for home-care workers is essentially controlled by the state elected leaders. Unfortunately for these workers and their families, the state budget crisis has meant consistent underfunding for health care. Last year, despite projections of double-digit inflation in health-care costs, the Legislature provided only a 3-percent increase.
The picture next year is even bleaker. Health-care costs continue to skyrocket — private carriers are estimating 20 percent increases in premium costs for the upcoming year — and there’s no funding to cover it. The only option is to take it out of the pockets of low-wage workers by increasing costs and reducing benefit levels for these low-income workers. If this happens, most home-care workers will be forced to drop their coverage because they simply cannot afford it.
A survey last year showed that 68 percent of home-care aides say they would drop their health plan if their out-of-pocket health-care expenses increased by $150 per month. Many have already lost benefits due to cuts to hours of care.
Just a few years ago, Valerie was diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer, and her life literally depends on having affordable coverage. Valerie’s very clear about what would happen to her if she loses her health coverage: “Losing my health care would force me to turn to the state for assistance — and that’s a Band-Aid that causes more of a problem.”
Just days ago, Gov. Chris Gregoire pledged, “Washington is going to lead the nation in implementing health-care reform, we’re going to help more people get coverage, make sure our health-care industry is ready and save taxpayer dollars.”
When faced with protecting health benefits for children, the Legislature said yes. When faced with protecting health benefits for people on the Basic Health Plan and receiving General Assistance-Unemployable, the Legislature said yes. When faced with the decision to protect affordable health care for state employees, the Legislature is saying yes.
It’s hard to believe the Legislature wouldn’t protect affordable health care for home-care workers who earn just over $10 per hour, yet that is exactly what the House and Senate budgets do.
Unless the Legislature acts to increase funding, Valerie and thousands of home-care workers face losing their health insurance in the next year, taking us in the wrong direction in our state even as we celebrate the promise of reform at the federal level.
David Rolf, left, is the president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW, which represents more than 38,000 long-term-care workers in Washington state. Ryan Jacobsen is the Northwest regional director of Addus Healthcare, which employs almost 1000 home-care workers throughout Washington state.