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Column: Pay caregivers their worth

Maribel Slinde

The demand for direct care workers, or DCWs, will increase substantially in coming years as the population of older adults and people with disabilities in Iowa increases. Direct care workers go by different names often determined by where they work and the populations they support or serve. Regardless of their title, they provide most of the hands-on care in settings that range from in-home care, assisted living, nursing homes, and hospitals to residential care facilities, supported living, adult day services, and hospices.

Our state has struggled mightily to maintain an adequate direct care workforce. This is a challenge that we share with every state in the country, but an especially vexing problem in Iowa due to our slow population growth and the increasing number of people needing direct care services further compounded by the pandemic. In fact, 59.2% of Iowa’s nursing homes report they are short-staffed according to a February AARP Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard.

Attracting and retaining direct care workers to meet Iowa’s present and future needs is impossible with the wages currently paid. Direct care worker's median hourly wage is below $15 an hour, with 15% living below the poverty guidelines according to PHI National, formerly known as the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute. Twenty-eight percent work more than one job to make ends meet.

Caring for and supporting other human beings is a wonderful calling but should not require people to take a vow of poverty to do so. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), federal legislation passed in 2021, brought large sums of one-time funding into Iowa. A portion of the funds are being used to provide bonuses for direct support professionals, or DSPs, who serve individuals with disabilities in some settings. While temporary bonuses help direct service professionals and their employers, it isn’t a solution and falls short of what is needed. What is needed is a more equitable distribution of wage enhancements across settings and populations served to shore up the direct care workforce.

Iowa lawmakers should seize this golden opportunity (pun intended) to use ARPA funds to jump-start the following and commit to their future sustainability:

• Increase Medicaid reimbursement rates to all health, long-term care, and home and community-based providers. The increased rates should be accompanied with requirements that employers spend the reimbursement increases on improving wages and benefits for the direct care workforce.

• Exempt all direct care workers who have worked for a Medicare/Medicaid provider for at least one year and are making at least $15 an hour from paying Iowa income tax. This would incentivize employers who are not paying at least $15 an hour to increase their wages. In addition to the income tax exemption, provide those same direct care workers a tax credit or incentive for each quarter that they remain working in the direct care field. The incentive must be high enough to lift direct care workers out of poverty, as specified in the United Way’s Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed report, with updated data due out in 2023, and eventually eliminate reliance on state help for food, housing, health insurance, and childcare. Those providing care and supportive services through Money Follows the Person (MFP) and the Consumer Directed Attendant Care (CDAC) programs should also receive the exemption and tax incentives.

Generally, higher demand for employees drives wages up, but that is not so for some direct care workers. This is because payment for health and long-term care providers that employ direct care workers is mainly determined by states through their Medicaid programs. As the largest payer for services, Medicaid sets the industry standard for direct care wages. Inadequate reimbursement rates under Medicaid prevent many employers from offering competitive wages.

Investing significantly in care infrastructure—in which higher wages for care workers is a key plank—would transform Iowa’s direct care workforce. It would attract more workers to the field and improve retention. And to fellow Iowa taxpayers: Do you want your tax dollars spent on the front-end, investing in good-paying jobs and good care, or do you want to continue to invest in the back-end costs of high worker turnover, diminished care quality and tax-funded programs like childcare subsidies, state health insurance, and food benefits so these and other essential workers can afford to work? This is the year for Iowa lawmakers to act.

Maribel Slinde chairs Iowa CareGivers, a West Des Moines-based non-profit that advocates for direct care workers.

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