OLYMPIA — A group of Republican state senators want to make it optional to participate in Washington’s new long-term care insurance program — and associated payroll tax — a change supporters say would threaten the first-of-its-kind program meant to help Washingtonians pay for care as they age.
The tax went into effect July 1. Most Washington workers will now pay a 0.58% tax on their wages.
The state has already allowed some people, like those with private long-term care insurance plans, to opt out. But Senate Republican Leader John Braun, of Centralia, and three other state senators said Monday they want to let anyone and everyone opt out.
“The bottom line is, it’s your money,” said Sen. Chris Gildon, R-Puyallup. “This should be your choice on how you spend it.”
Making it optional could in effect kill the program intended to spread risk among a large group of Washingtonians, supporters say.
The money from the tax goes into the WA Cares program, which will allow people to access up to $36,500 to pay for help with basic needs like food, mobility and hygiene as they age or otherwise need that level of care either at home or a facility.
The Legislature created the program in 2019 through House Bill 1087. Lawmakers delayed the program, initially scheduled to go into effect in 2022, that year and allowed some people to opt out, such as spouses of military members and people who work in Washington but live in another state.
About 508,000 Washingtonians have already opted out for various reasons, according to the Employment Security Department. Most of those people have opted out under an exemption for people with private long-term care insurance plans. People who had long-term care insurance plans through the private market on or before Nov. 1, 2021, were eligible to apply for an exemption from Oct. 1, 2021, until Dec. 31, 2022.
Braun said the program won’t solve the high costs of long-term care.
“And it’s going to be one more step that makes Washington state unaffordable for a whole group of workers,” Braun said.
A 40-year-old worker making $60,000 a year would have to pay about $29 per month, or $348 per year, according to the program.
Workers can access the funds after contributing for 10 years. The maximum benefit is $36,500, but that figure will be adjusted for inflation.
Making the program optional would in effect repeal the program by leading to a phenomenon called “adverse selection,” according to Ben Veghte, the director of the WA Cares Fund.
That basically means the people who need the program most would choose to stay in while those who are less likely to need care opt out. That could “destabilize the program’s finances,” Veghte said in an email.
Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, who leads Democrats in the Senate, said in a statement that making the program optional “is tantamount to killing it.”
He said the program “will help people age in their home and with dignity.”
“If any legislators have legitimate ideas on how to solve the long-term care affordability issue or any other problem, they should absolutely introduce a bill so we can have a discussion on how to best serve all Washingtonians,” he said.
Braun called the program “woefully inadequate” and that people “don’t like [it] because it’s not well designed.”
“If people opt out, and therefore we have to rethink this and come up with a better policy solution, that seems like a good outcome,” Braun said.
Jessica Gomez, campaign manager for the We Care for WA Cares coalition, a collection of health, consumer and labor groups that support WA Cares, said the program “will be a critical support to millions of working families in Washington.”
“When you experience a disabling event like a serious accident, injury, surgery, disease or the normal setbacks that can come with aging, it doesn’t matter what political party you are affiliated with,” Gomez said. “It’s disappointing to see anti-worker interests try to undermine a program that’s going to make a life-changing difference for the vast majority of Washingtonians.”
However, Democrats seemed skeptical that the proposal could get enough support to pass.
“You can count votes. I can count votes,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines. “I don’t see how that works.”
Keiser said she hadn’t talked to legislators directly about the proposal but suspects the move “is more of a political talking point than a serious policy proposal.”
Lawmakers anticipate making some tweaks to the program going forward. One example is allowing people who move out of state to access their benefits, said Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle.
Information from The Seattle Times archives was used in this report.