Legislators discuss long-term care, predict more changes to law

By ELIZABETH HOVDE  | 
Jun 2, 2022
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Two lawmakers on an oversight committee for Washington state’s not-yet-implemented long-term-care law were featured Wednesday on The Impact, a show providing news and analysis from Washington state’s Capitol.

Discussion about the new social program Democrats created in 2019 included solvency concerns, repeal attempts and possible changes to the benefit that some taxpayers might be eligible for from what is known as the WA Cares Fund

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, and Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, also talked about tweaks made to the law in this year’s legislative session. Changes included an 18-month delay of the 58-cent-per-$100 payroll tax. W2 workers will now start paying that in July of 2023. Changes also included additional exemption categories for some, but not all, of the taxpayers who will never see a benefit from WA Cares. More “fixes,” as lawmakers call them, are expected next legislative session. 

Harris and Keiser said dialogue is ongoing about how to make the program’s $36,500 lifetime benefit portable. Right now, even if people pay into WA Cares for the required number of years (10), moving out of state means they get zero dollars. Keiser assured viewers that lawmakers see the injustice in that and want to fix it. “If you’ve paid your premiums, you should be able to have a benefit of some kind,” she said. 

I agree. But even if lawmakers fix portability, this is one of the core problems with WA Cares: Many workers will pay in and receive nothing in return. Some won’t need long-term care, others won’t become vested in the program and still others won’t meet the requirement of needing assistance with three or more activities of daily life. All of us will have life needs of some sort. Keeping more of our earnings could help us save for and invest in those needs. A one-size-fits-some savings account controlled by the state is misguided.

Both lawmakers said they expect that the “dials” of the WA Cares program will need adjustment to keep it solvent. The tax rate could increase and/or the promised benefit decrease.

The benefit is already a problem. While telling workers of all incomes that they can have peace of mind that their long-term-care needs are met through WA Cares, the $ 36,500 benefit is not enough to offer that peace of mind. Keiser, a proponent of the law, admits it won’t be a long-term fix for every individual. 

The payroll tax will, however, lower the state's Medicaid spending for long-term care by cost-shifting more of the burden to workers.  

Medicaid is the safety net that already exists for people in need of long-term care that they haven’t planned for. “The average person who stays on Medicaid for a year in their own home has about a $33,000 spend,” Keiser says. That’s not a whole lot different than the WA Cares Fund benefit, but it will cost low-income workers much more.

Asked about the hundreds of thousands of people who will be exempt from the program and its tax, Keiser said, “Fine. If they’re not covered, then we don’t have to pay benefits. So it’s really a zero-sum for the program because they're just not counted as part of the entire pool.”  

That’s not exactly the case. While not taking a worker’s money for WA Cares does mean the state won’t be required to pay out a WA Cares benefit, the state might not have had to anyway, given the many eligibility hurdles in the law. And the new exemption categories were created because they represented people who would be paying into WA Cares but could not benefit from the fund already.

When asked to crystal-ball the law's future, Keiser said she hopes for more fixes. Harris said, “I gotta listen to the people. … That’s my job, to be their representative and listen.”

Voters already rejected a financing measure related to the law, and nearly 500,000 workers have sought exemption from WA Cares, choosing private long-term-care insurance, instead. Many other workers express disappointment they’ll be paying a new payroll tax for an inadequate benefit for which they may never even qualify. 

Repeal is the “fix” we need. Let’s hope lawmakers are listening.  

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