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WA Cares, if it survives, could benefit people who retire elsewhere

By Claire Withycombe, The Seattle Times
Published: February 21, 2024, 6:40pm

OLYMPIA — State legislators are advancing a proposal that would let Washingtonians access benefits through the state’s new long-term care insurance program, WA Cares Fund, even if they left the state for a new job or to retire.

But the proposals are moving forward as WA Cares faces questions over its survival.

A petition-backed initiative to the Legislature would make optional a requirement that most Washington workers pay into the program.

Legislative leaders announced Friday that they won’t hold hearings on the WA Cares initiative, one of six initiatives traversing the Legislature this session. Legislators could have adopted the initiative into law or adopted an alternative.

The news that they won’t act means Washington voters will decide in November whether the state should keep or nix mandatory participation in the program.

In 2019, Washington became the first state to create a publicly funded program meant to cover the costs of long-term care for people who require help with three or more basic daily activities like bathing or eating.

After some delay, the state started collecting the 0.58 percent payroll tax that funds WA Cares in 2023. Benefits won’t begin until 2026. The maximum lifetime benefit would begin at $36,500 and will be adjusted for inflation in future years.

Right now, most workers are required to pay into it, unless they chose to buy a private long-term care insurance plan on or before Nov. 1, 2021.

Initiative No. 2124 would make the tax optional for everyone, and supporters of the initiative argue that Washingtonians should have a choice as to whether to participate. WA Cares’ supporters, though, say the initiative could threaten the program by shrinking the risk pool and making payments more expensive for those who choose to stay in.

“Essentially, it’s framed as a choice, but it really kills the program,” said Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, “because like any other social insurance program like Medicare or Social Security, it depends on a broad, extremely broad, base of contributors in order for everybody to be eligible for a benefit.”

Supporters of WA Cares, at a news conference in Olympia on Tuesday, showed off a few items that the program could help people pay for, like installing a ramp at home ($2,192), a front-wheel walker ($38.99) and a four-wheel electric mobility scooter ($1,534).

At the news conference, Dani Rice said that the program would have been “a lifeline” for her family, had it been in place when she was partially paralyzed in a routine medical procedure when she was 30.

“I can tell you now that my family wasn’t financially prepared for thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of medical bills,” she said. “And most families aren’t.”

Two proposals before legislators, House Bill 2467, sponsored by Macri, and Senate Bill 6072, sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, would let people take those benefits with them if they moved out of state.

Macri said most people who work in Washington will retire and age here, too.

“But of course, we want to make sure that we have the flexibility, that if people do move, that they can take the benefits with them, just in case, because people do need to move for work or for family,” she said.

Senate Bill 6072 would also make the program “portable” across state lines, but would also create a private long-term care insurance option to supplement coverage if a person exhausts their benefits.

Republicans in the Legislature have questioned the underlying design of the program.

Senate Republican Leader John Braun, of Centralia, in a news conference Tuesday described WA Cares as “the wrong solution to a real problem.”

“Unfortunately, the way this is designed, the system probably doesn’t survive if everyone can withdraw, because most people will, because they recognize, correctly, that this isn’t a program that’s going to serve them very well,” he said.

He also said the Senate’s proposal to make benefits portable was “unworkable.”

“It’s sort of unworkable … the way you have to maintain your records and report them manually,” Braun said. “It seems like it’s fraught with potential problems, either with misreporting or misunderstanding and therefore, perhaps, ineligibility long-term for the benefits.”

House Republican Leader Drew Stokesbary, of Auburn, said he suspected the initiative to make the entire program optional would pass and said the state shouldn’t play the role of insurer.

“I think that we should be figuring out a way where the state can leverage its resources to help backstop the private insurance market, to provide affordable coverage for those who want it, without mandating it for those who won’t,” he said, “And without the state trying to become an insurer and having to disentangle all of these complicated issues, like portability, on our own.”

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