The PA Rescue Plan tackles long-term care for our most vulnerable

Written by Reps. Melissa Shusterman and Jessica Benham

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed so many inequities in our country – from socio-economic to racial, medical conditions and age. These inequities existed long before the pandemic but have been laid bare over the past year in such a way that we can no longer refuse to address them. Our most vulnerable populations – seniors and people with disabilities – must have access to quality, affordable care. And that starts with support for the workforce charged with helping them.

We know that, if given the choice, most seniors prefer to age in place from the comfort of their own homes. But as they age, the need may arise for assistance with day-to-day activities, transportation, medications and overall wellness. That’s where direct care workers make a huge difference. These workers are low-paid and often lack adequate health care and other benefits like sick or vacation leave. These jobs are also physically and emotionally demanding and are often characterized by heavy workloads, scheduling challenges, and limited training and career advancement prospects. Yet, these workers show up each day for their clients because they know someone is depending on them.

In 2020, people 65 and older made up 19% of Pennsylvania’s population -- that is expected to grow to 22% by 2025. The increase in our aging population will put additional pressure on our direct care workforce. However, the investment by the state in these important jobs remains persistently low. This has led to difficulty with recruitment and retention efforts within the long-term care industry.

The nationwide median wage for direct care workers is $12.80 per hour and has seen little to no improvement over the past decade. As the number of aging Pennsylvanians continues to increase at a rate that far exceeds the number of young people in our state, we must pay attention to what’s happening in the care industry by paying direct care workers a living wage and providing them with the job safety nets they have more than earned. These workers deserve – and need – a raise.

The Pennsylvania Rescue Plan, which is how House Democrats have proposed to invest the over-$22 billion in relief coming to Pennsylvania in the new federal stimulus bill, would immediately provide a $15-per-hour minimum wage for the commonwealth’s direct care workers, and foster new training opportunities for them. It would also create a statewide registry through which families could access these workers’ profiles, experience and credentials so they can hire someone that pairs well with their loved one.

Our plan also helps the many providers who ensure people with intellectual disabilities can live in the communities they love. We need to ensure our specialized providers serving people with intellectual disabilities and autism can weather the pandemic during these times of increased costs for overtime, additional staff and personal protective equipment – even when less money is coming in.

Our plan will invest $211 million to update reimbursement rates to these providers to ensure they are able to cover their costs. Like the direct care workforce, our plan will also invest in a $15-per-hour minimum wage for the direct support professionals who assist people with intellectual disabilities live their everyday lives. For the last several years, we have been chipping away at the waiting list of individuals in need of services. Although investments have been made year over year, no measurable progress has been made.

Our plan will fund services for an additional 1,100 people who would otherwise still be waiting.

Finally, we need to invest in helping people live as independently as possible, for the longest time possible. The Living Independence for the Elderly program is a highly successful model that exists in some Pennsylvania counties, but not all. Eligible seniors can access transportation, social programming, and many other day-to-day services through this highly popular initiative. The PA Rescue Plan invests $35 million into expanding LIFE across multiple counties, giving seniors even more options for independent living.

In many ways, this pandemic has changed our priorities and shown us what truly matters -- that everyone’s health and wellbeing must be the top priority. This historic stimulus bill will help us to improve the way we approach long-term care for our seniors and people with disabilities, ensuring our most vulnerable populations receive the care they deserve during the remainder of this pandemic, and into the future.