Senior care, and aging with dignity, knows no political party. We all are aging.
This week Minnesota legislators from both parties and both chambers stood together to tell us why they are seeking to ensure that seniors and their caregivers will be a priority for funding this year.
This call for action comes at a time when the senior care system — which has been built around our state’s values of choice, independent living and quality — is starving for an investment. It is an investment that can be translated to wages for workers, more and better trained staff, and care settings that meet the standards we want for ourselves and our parents.
It has been four years since payment rates for senior care were increased — consequently, four years since many caregivers have had a wage increase. Many of them work more than one job to make ends meet. Many have no health insurance for themselves or their families, yet they fill an indispensable role in bringing health care to others.
It is a testimony to the dedication and creativity of such people, heroes of our time, that they are still willing to work around the clock and on weekends for an average of $12 per hour.
But warning signs are out there. We estimate there are more than 1,600 unfilled full-time-equivalent caregiver positions in Minnesota nursing homes. More and more facilities have to turn prospective residents away because they don’t have staff to care for them. Is that any wonder when a nurse can make $36,000 more a year working in a hospital?
Minnesota has made great strides in implementing reforms aimed at keeping us independent as we age, giving us choices in housing and services that meet our needs and preferences. But we are failing to sustain the foundation of our senior care system: the caregivers who step up to care for our parents and grandparents when we cannot, and the home- and community-based services that make it possible for us to live in the place we call home.
Our wishes for our own aging are well-aligned with our wishes as taxpayers. The program that has served as the backbone for seniors living at home — the Elderly Waiver program — can support three people in the community for the same cost as just one in a nursing home. Yet this very program has experienced double-digit cuts over the last five years, and unless the Legislature acts this session, it will be cut again this year.
By 2020, we’ll have more seniors than school-aged children in Minnesota. We must ensure that 2013 is the year we break the cycle of underfunding. We can do that by joining hands across the political divide, between legislative bodies, between labor and management, between provider and consumer. The key steps: Do right by our caregivers with a meaningful boost to their wages; strengthen the programs like Elderly Waiver that help seniors stay at home, and reward providers who improve quality.
Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget takes an important step in that direction, but we can and must do more to ensure that Minnesota is not just a great place to grow up but also a great place to grow old.
Patti Cullen is president and CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota. Gayle Kvenvold is president and CEO of Aging Services of Minnesota.