By Chris Thomas
Washington News Service
OLYMPIA, Wash. – Who will need long-term care and who will pay for it are the topics of a study getting under way for the new year, ordered by the Washington Legislature.
State lawmakers in 2015 decided it’s time to think ahead about the aging population, or risk the financial consequences of being unprepared for an age wave set to hit the state within 15 years. Dennis Mahar, who chairs the Washington Association of Area Agencies on Aging, says this conversation is long overdue.
“Particularly when you add things like dementia, it really becomes critical to start thinking about, ‘How are we going to going to pay for this?'” he says. “Because if people wind up not having the savings, or blowing through their savings, they’re going to wind up on the Medicaid system and it’s going to cost the public system quite a bit.”
The study, for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, is supposed to be finished in a year, and will include recommendations that the Legislature can then decide whether to support. Mahar says Hawaii is the only state so far that has long-term care plans in place for its aging population.
Just seven percent of Washingtonians have purchased long-term care insurance. Mahar says that’s mostly because it’s expensive and fewer companies are willing to offer it and pay the sky-high claims. He says the current system also encourages lower-income seniors to spend down to poverty level, and higher-income seniors to shelter their assets all of which raise big questions about who pays for care.
“Is there another method that would enable us to cover more people?” asks Mahar. “That’s what this actuarial study is really designed to do, is identify a couple of options that might work and then, is there political interest, either in the Legislature or from the public, to pass that sort of thing?”
About this time last year, a Legislative Executive Committee reported that family members deliver 80 percent of long-term care services and supports in Washington – in part because most people who need them can’t afford them.