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Want better homecare? Stop attacking homecare workers | Opinion

By Jody Weinreich and Rick Bloomingdale

For the last nine years, Michelle Olsen has helped Michael Flynn stay out of a nursing home. At age 32, Michael was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and he has needed an amputation.

Michelle handles his catheter, his toileting, his appointments and his meds. Just as importantly, she supports him in having a good life. They go out, visit friends, see movies, and vote.

Olson’s care allows Flynn to have what we all want most: choice, dignity and independence.

Unfortunately, homecare has done less to deliver that same dignity and independence for Michelle Olson.

After nine years, she makes $12.53 an hour and receives no benefits. Isolated from other caregivers who do the same work, she has no system of natural support.

She has not had a day off since she started caring for Flynn. That’s because few people are willing to do such difficult work for such little reward, and there just is no backup should she fall ill or simply need a break.

For the same reason, Olson has celebrated Thanksgiving with Flynn’s family for the past decade. Most people with disabilities and seniors who require assistance with activities of daily living would prefer to receive their care at home. 

But today there is only one home care worker for every eight people who need support in Pennsylvania.

Low pay, lack of backup, and isolation result in workforce turnover rates that are approaching 50 percent.

Pennsylvania’s inability to recruit and maintain a stable home care workforce is undermining our ability to provide care affordably – and it’s about to get worse. 

Pennsylvania’s need for long term care is about to explode. One American turns 65 every eight seconds. That’s 10,000 each day and one million each year.

Today, 17 percent of Pennsylvanians are 65 or older. By 2030, that number will increase to one in four. This ” silver tsunami” presents not only the challenge of helping people live with dignity; it also presents a tremendous fiscal challenge.

We simply cannot afford to meet the demand in nursing homes, which costs about three times as much as home care.

By any measure, our best option is to build a sustainable and strong home care system, but we can’t do that without addressing the shortage of caregivers.

That, in turn, means transforming home caregiving into a viable career, with fair remuneration, peer support, a system of backup, and respect as real stakeholders able to help improve the home care system.

In 2015, the Wolf administration took steps to get ahead of the tsunami by calling for increased funding for home and community-based services and by creating a caregivers’ advisory group to meet with his Administration and work on improvements that would help to stabilize and expand Pennsylvania’s system.

Unfortunately, the Fairness Center, an extremist right wing organization funded by out of state billionaires, initiated a legal challenge to Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal in 2015.

The Fairness Centers is one of several hundred organizations, all with similarly innocent names, associated with the  State Policy Network, a complex maze of corporate-funded “think tanks” that coordinate legal interventions for billionaires. 

The Center for Media and Democracy calls the SPN the tip of the spear of far-right, nationally funded policy agenda in the states that undergirds extremists in the Republican Party.”

Their key policy initiatives include curtailing voting rights, attacking worker organizations, dismantling Medicaid, and preventing people from addressing climate change.

The Fairness Center’s suit is a litany of false claims and diversions.

It claims that by convening home care workers to address their needs and those of their consumers, Wolf has overstepped his authority, when in fact, it’s his responsibility.

It asserts that the Wolf has created collective bargaining for caregivers and forces them to pay dues, when in fact the governor’s executive order prohibits both of these things.

Absurdly, it further claim that its suit defends the relationships between caregivers and consumers, when today, one in seven consumers has no access to care at all.

The reality is that Wolf is creating policies grounded in the preferences and needs of caregivers, seniors, people with disabilities, and taxpayers, not the preferences and needs of far right ideologues.

On November 28, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has the opportunity to  restore executive decision-making to our Governor and to show that frivolous lawsuits backed by big money is not how policy is made in our state.

From there, we can pull together and focus on the human and fiscal crisis before us so that seniors and individuals living with disabilities can receive the care they need in the setting they prefer.

Jody Weinreich is an Executive Board Member of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans and Retiree Liaison with the Workers United Retirees Association. Rick Bloomingdale is president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

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