Opinion: Lawmakers can help workers with this WA Cares repeal bill

Elizabeth Hovde of the Washington Policy Center explains why lawmakers should take the legislator’s gift of a way out of bad policy.

Elizabeth Hovde of the Washington Policy Center explains why lawmakers should take the legislator’s gift of a way out of bad policy

Elizabeth Hovde
Washington Policy Center

Look what landed in legislators’ Christmas stockings: Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, has pre-filed House Bill 1011, “Repealing the long-term services and supports trust program,” for the 2023 legislative session. 

Elizabeth Hovde
Elizabeth Hovde

Most everyone now knows what WA Cares is and isn’t. The social program created by a 2019 long-term-care (LTC) law will shift some of Medicaid’s future long-term-care costs onto the backs of today’s workers with a new tax. In July, most Washington state workers will start paying 58 cents on every $100 they earn with hopes that someday, if they require long-term-care services, they might qualify for money that can be used for them. The hit on workers’ incomes in these inflationary times will also provide taxpayer-funded paychecks for caregivers and possibly create more union members in the process.

The social program will not offer “peace of mind” as the marketing arm for WA Cares suggests. In fact, telling people who might need assistance with the activities of daily life someday that a payroll tax they paid for years is going to cover their long-term-care bills — with a lifetime benefit of $36,500 — is dangerous. Not only is the amount inadequate for long-term care, qualifying for the benefit isn’t a sure thing. 

The long-term-care crisis headed our way with a graying population is a real issue. But instead of sounding the alarm, urging savings or purchases of long-term-care insurance or other investments, strengthening Medicaid eligibility and getting rid of a tax on insurance products, the state has created a too-wide safety net for people in need and people not in need — one that requires a lot of administration and other costs. 

Taking money from low-income workers today to give to people who might not even need the government’s help with LTC harms workers. Medicaid is a federal-state safety net set up for people in need. Let’s strengthen it. And taking workers’ money away and saving it for one life need that they may or may not have, when they will surely have other life needs, isn’t helpful.

Abbarno and many other lawmakers get this. And several repeal bills have gone ignored in a Democratic-led Legislature. 

The Legislature won’t look a lot different in 2023, but the writing on the wall that WA Cares isn’t the solution lawmakers were hoping for has become a lot clearer. Not only did the Legislature delay the tax collection for the fund in January because of its many shortcomings, it tried to make the future brighter for near-retirees and others who would not benefit from WA Cares despite their contributions. This session, a commission is recommending various other “fixes” still in need. 

The trouble with the fixes is that the law is irreparably broken because the idea behind WA Cares is broken. Abbarno’s repeal bill could stop this misguided payroll tax that financially harms workers before it even begins. 

When I asked Abbarno if he expects this repeal legislation to receive consideration, he said, “I hope the WA Cares repeal receives as much consideration as the proposed ‘fixes’ to the program’s lack of benefits and insolvency. However, I don’t anticipate the majority will want to hit the reset button.” He added that working on meaningful long-term-care solutions is the right thing to do — and that starts with repealing the WA Cares Fund.

Lawmakers should take the legislator’s gift of a way out of bad policy.

Elizabeth Hovde is a policy analyst and the director of the Centers for Health Care and Worker Rights at the Washington Policy Center. She is a Clark County resident.


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