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News / Health / Health Wire

‘A pragmatic, modest step’: Making the case for Washington’s new long-term care program

WA Cares director Ben Veghte says the initiative can help meet the growing need for care, even if it doesn’t fully solve the difficulties many families face.

By LAUREL DEMKOVICH, Washington State Standard
Published: November 21, 2023, 7:30am

In Washington and across the U.S., the number of people in need of long-term care is on the rise as the population ages.

Seven out of 10 Americans will need this type of care – which can span weeks or years depending on the situation – at some point in their lifetimes, according to AARP. But people often don’t have savings or income to cover the full expense.

Meanwhile, residential long-term care facilities continue to face high staff turnover and worker shortages.

All of these factors leave many people turning to relatives for care, an option that can create hardships of its own for the family members who step in to help.

This National Family Caregiving Month – celebrated every November – Washington advocates are pointing to the new WA Cares Fund as one solution for supporting family caregivers, who they say will likely become even more important in the years ahead.

AARP estimates there are 820,000 family caregivers in Washington. Some of them get paid through state or federal programs, like Medicaid. Others may need to supplement their income with another source in order to prevent going into debt while caring for a loved one.

WA Cares could be that other source, according to program director Ben Veghte.

The program went into effect this year, and all full-time, part-time and temporary workers in Washington began paying 0.58% of their paycheck in July. Those who qualify to receive the $36,500 benefit can begin collecting it in July 2026. Applications to receive the money will likely go live a few months prior.

Beneficiaries can choose to use part or all of the money to pay a family member to care for them.

The benefit can be used for other things as well – like getting food delivered, retrofitting a house with a ramp or other accessible features, or paying the cost of a stay in a long-term care facility.

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WA Cares has stoked controversy, with critics saying the benefit is too small to be meaningful and raising questions about other aspects of the program, like how people who pay the tax can’t get the benefit if they move away from Washington by the time they need assistance.

The Standard sat down this week with Veghte to discuss WA Cares, some of the criticisms directed toward the program and why he and others see it as a key step in helping people in the state access the care that they need.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

WA Cares provides up to $36,500 for someone who qualifies. How can that be used for a family caregiver?

Right now when people need care, they often have very few choices, right? They often have very little money, they’re on a fixed income in retirement and they kind of are forced to do whatever is available. It might just be that you have to spend your life savings and go on Medicaid. It might be that your son or daughter has to quit their job and move near you, care for you and give up their own economic security. With WA Cares, we’re trying to enhance people’s choices.

If you were to need care, you would get a budget of $36,500. You can use that however you see fit as long as it’s used for long-term care purposes. You could hire a professional to come in and care for you. Or you could use your entire benefit on paying your loved ones to care for you.

There have been a number of criticisms surrounding the program, from the price of the premium to the program’s solvency over the next 75 years to the size of the benefit, which some people say is too small to cover the entirety of long-term care. How do you address those concerns?

There’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in that criticism.

WA Cares is a pragmatic, modest step towards addressing the crisis that we all agree is a big problem. The criticism that says we should have a really high benefit also means that we should have a really high premium because the two are tied together with a rope. To me, that’s a little bit contradictory because the other criticism is that people don’t want to pay the premium at all.

We know that care is a problem that families face, that twice as many families are going to be facing it over the next 13 years as the population 85 years and older is going to double. And so the question is, should we continue with the status quo, where the entire magnitude of that burden is on the shoulders of family caregivers? Or should we have some public program that spreads the burden across all of us?

Why should people care about the WA Cares Fund?

There is a family caregiving crisis. There’s a crisis of care that is already existing today where families who cope with care challenges are often left on their own to struggle and find a way to make the balance of care and work, to make sure the person is safe and okay and can live with dignity and independence, but also make sure that the family caregivers themselves don’t find that they end up insecure financially and poor in retirement, as is often the case.

Right now seven out of 10 of us are going to need long term care. Most of us don’t have a way to pay for it.

And so the vast majority of American families are faced with a crisis, both financially and of course emotionally. WA Cares is a first step towards solving this problem. It’s not a complete solution. Obviously, it’s a modest premium and a modest benefit. But it’s going right at the heart of this caregiving crisis and the care crisis in general. Anyone who cares about these issues should be looking for solutions and WA Cares is the most promising solution we have right now from a public policy perspective.

And I think we need to enhance it, build on it and flank it with other things. WA Cares is an essential first step towards reducing the magnitude of this challenge that all of us are going to be facing in the coming decades.

What are some of the other options for addressing this growing crisis?

We all need to be having kitchen table conversations in our families. It really comes down to families preparing themselves for this. WA Cares is a tool to support families, give them resources, give them a budget, because that money can really come in handy.

We also need to do more to encourage people to go into the field of professional home care, so apprenticeship programs, training programs. We need to continue to pay workers well in this space so that people choose to go into this field as a career rather than going into other fields.

We need to dramatically increase our workforce, or else we’re going to have a caregiver shortage when the age wave hits. And that’s true not just here, but throughout the country and really throughout the world. It’s hitting us all at once.

But it’s important to connect the problem that we have with the solution. WA Cares is a partial solution, but it’s the biggest solution that’s on our radar right now in Washington state. We need to start solving this problem, and this is one step in that direction.


Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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