Opinion: Portability change means a WA Cares benefit? Don’t count on it

Elizabeth New (Hovde) of the Washington Policy Center believes state leaders should be reforming Medicaid, protecting it from abuse, and increasing taxpayer awareness of potential needs when it comes to long-term care.

Elizabeth New believes state leaders should be reforming Medicaid, protecting it from abuse, and increasing taxpayer awareness of potential needs when it comes to long-term care

Elizabeth New (Hovde) 
Washington Policy Center

Let the games begin. A state public-relations campaign is underway suggesting that because the Washington State Legislature passed a bill allowing people to use a WA Cares Fund benefit to receive long-term care outside of the state, it’s a sure thing you’ll benefit. That’s not a sure thing. 

Elizabeth New (Hovde), Washington Policy Center
Elizabeth New (Hovde), Washington Policy Center

I received an email from the state about the legislation Friday. It read, “​​Planning to leave Washington in the future? Now you can take your WA Cares benefit with you, thanks to a new law passed last month and signed by Gov. Inslee today.” The suggestion is that you’ll benefit whether you live in or out of state one day. 

Before now, moving out of state automatically disqualified you from receiving a benefit from WA Cares, regardless of how much money you had paid into the state-imposed program over your working years. Despite the portability legislation, you still might be denied the promised benefit that the state says should give workers peace of mind about long-term-care needs. There are other hurdles Washingtonians need to clear before seeing any return on their tax-required investment of 59 cents on every $100 they earn.

First, you have to need long-term care. Some of us won’t. Second, you need to meet state definitions about health criteria, and the state’s are considered more burdensome than those in the private industry. They could also change in any legislative session. 

Next, you have to have paid into WA Cares for, typically, 10 years without a break of five or more years, and you have to have worked a minimum of 500 hours in each of those years. There is talk among policymakers about increasing the 500-hour amount to 1,000. An oversight commission said portability should happen in a cost-neutral way and suggested that the number of hours required for eligibility would need to change for all workers, not just workers seeking a portable benefit.

That vestment qualification as is and with the proposed change will rule out many family caregivers — some of the very people who are supposed to benefit from WA Cares. Some working parents care for their children, work part-time or return to full-time work after raising kids, then are needed to care for aging parents. Often, there will be no WA Cares benefit for them. 

A simplifying of the vestment criterion was proposed in other legislation considered this session but did not pass. Senate Bill 6072 also would have made other clean-up moves suggested by the Long-Term Services and Supports Trust Commission. Among them were two I was hoping for. They included changing the “without a five-year break” wording in the law and letting people on non-immigrant work visas be automatically exempt from paying into a program from which they won’t benefit. 

Why now?

A lack of WA Cares portability has been widely criticized, and energy for a course correction has been ignored for several years now. So why is the Legislature changing this detail now? I think Initiative 2124 provided lawmakers with the motivation. The initiative will be on the Nov. 5 ballot and could make WA Cares and its payroll tax optional. Portability makes WA Cares look less bad.

Don’t be fooled. Looking less bad does not make WA Cares a good deal. 

Many workers will continue losing 59 cents of every $100 they earn during their working years, forced to pay into a program that will benefit someone other than them. Oftentimes, money that low-income workers could use to make today’s ends meet will be used for the long-term-care services of others who make more money than them and who don’t need taxpayers help to fund their needs. WA Cares is not a safety net program and the taxes collected are not premiums. They are taxes.

Supporters of WA Cares say that, despite solvency concerns, some workers will be putting away money for one life need that they may or may not have someday. Forget about all the other life needs. 

You can also forget about the lifetime benefit of $36,500 being enough to cover most people’s long-term care, if they should need it. (See Genworth’s cost-of-care numbers.)

Having workers pay into WA Cares helps state budget writers with its Medicaid spending. It also has taxpayers picking up the tab for caregivers and benefitting a union made up of caregivers. WA Cares is not primarily about helping workers finance their possible long-term-care needs. There are far better ways to do that. Still, marketing for WA Cares is heavy on the individual-provisions angle. 

One of the things the state’s marketing doesn’t readily tell you is that people in financial need for long-term care already qualify for long-term-care dollars that taxpayers make available in Medicaid. With WA Cares, people in need now have a new tax during their working years that keeps them further from self-sufficiency.

Repeal would have been best

“Now portable!” the state email excitedly declares. I agree that portability for even some workers who pay the tax during their working years is better than not having benefits be portable for anyone. However, the 2024 Legislature missed the opportunity to dump WA Cares before voters get a chance to make the program optional in November. An optional WA Cares will bring even more solvency trouble and administrative costs to the program. 

State leaders should be reforming Medicaid, protecting it from abuse, and increasing taxpayer awareness of potential needs when it comes to long-term care. Instead, they are giving Washington state workers a portability promise that might not ring true.

Elizabeth New (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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