ITHACA, N.Y.—Senator Kirsten Gillibrand stood outside the Finger Lakes Independence Center in Ithaca on Friday, making the case that recovering from the pandemic, and improving the U.S. economy means investing in an often overlooked sector of health services: home health workers and caregivers. 

Gillibrand is calling for a $400 billion investment in long-term care and the caregiver economy through The Better Care Better Jobs Act. She’s working with lawmakers to get the bill passed through the budget reconciliation process, although it has been one of the policies that has not earned the pivotal vote of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

The bill would direct those funds to improving the wages that caregivers receive through Medicaid, as well as facilitate statewide planning of home and community-based services (HCBS).

Gillibrand said, “When we talk about advocating for working people in recovery, we are not doing our job if we are overlooking the care workers…investing in care workers and our care infrastructure is just as important as investing in our traditional infrastructure, such as roads and bridges.”

Alongside Gillibrand stood Finger Lakes Independence Center (FLIC) Executive Director, Jan Lynch. FLIC provides in-home care as well as other services to older adults. According to Lynch, one of the big challenges for FLIC is just finding the workforce to help people stay in their homes. That’s because the profession doesn’t often pay well.

The average pay for home health workers in New York is $15.45 per hour, just above Tompkins County’s living wage of $15.32, which is supposed to be enough for someone to live frugally and save a little money. 

Gillibrand said that the national median pay for a home health workers is $12 an hour, and she would like to see those workers making at least $15 an hour nationwide, but “if you could get these workers up to $50,000 that would be a strong middle-class job that would be a profession that they could grow in overtime, and you’d still be saving money rather than having to put people into institutional care that they may not want, or they may not need.”

If it seems like Gillibrand is high-balling this number, her argument is that a home care worker receiving a $50,000 salary would actually draw less money from Medicaid than a residential facility for a similar level of care. 

Gillibrand purported that anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000 is drawn from Medicaid to pay for the institutional care of an individual that could otherwise be at home. While having Medicaid pay for more in-home care supposedly could save the federal government some money, the wages aren’t driving people to pursue this career path and the workforce is waning as a result of that same problem.

Daniel Brown, the executive director of Racker, stood alongside Gillibrand and Lynch to support The Better Care Better Jobs Act. Racker provides support services for people with disabilities and their families and relies on HCBS funding through Medicaid, but Brown said that the organization has seen its staffing dwindle as the wages they’re able to offer slow.

“Five years ago, Racker had 1,000 employees. Today, that number is 850,” said Brown.

The demand for home health workers is outstripping supply too. There are over 3.5 million older adults and people with disabilities that receive home care through different Medicaid programs but, as of 2017, there were over 700,000 people on the Medicaid HCBS waiver list.

Gillibrand said that the bill is not just for benefitting in-home healthcare workers, but improving the wages of all workers regardless of where they provide care. “This is $400 billion dollars to put into the care economy to provide better wages and provide better benefits.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn