Bills would raise wages for those caring for North Carolina’s most vulnerable

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This story originally posted online at North Carolina Health News

In 2004, two weeks after graduating from high school, Brittany Stone was driving to pick up her younger sister from vacation Bible school during a storm. She hit a pothole and lost control of her vehicle. In the accident, she suffered a head trauma.

Seventeen years later, Stone landed a spot at the Whittecar Group Home in Raleigh, where she and five other residents get the help they need to get on with their lives. For the most part, the residents of the group home can meet their basic needs, but Stone, for example, finds it difficult to wash his back and hair because of the tremors. She uses a walker to get around, but she does household chores. She cannot drive or run to the store independently.

The people who help the six residents get on with their lives start with a salary of $ 11.50 an hour. For Lutheran Services Carolina, the agency that runs Whittecar, it has been difficult to hire employees to help people with conditions similar to Stone’s. This year, with the pandemic, has been a particular challenge, especially since there must be a member of staff at home 24 hours a day.

Rholanda Artis, program director for Whittecar, said low wages were pushing back some potential employees.

“We had a career fair in March,” Artis said. She said they had six applicants for the job. “It went well, but the pay – they just didn’t want the pay. “

“When we said $ 11.50, and it was because of their experience, some had no experience, some had experience, and when I went to $ 13.00, they said : “I just can’t make a living from this,” “said Artis.

Starbucks pays better

In North Carolina, the average hourly wage for direct social workers is about $ 5 less than retail jobs at companies such as Target, Walmart, Starbucks and Costco, according to Karen McLeod, head of Benchmarks, a group of advocacy of organizations that provide caring for children and families. With an average rate of pay of $ 10.31 / hour for direct care workers, it is difficult to hire and retain staff.

Bill 665 addresses the workforce crisis impacting disability care, and Bill 914 focuses on increasing the wages of long-term care workers. Both bills passed the House Health Committee on Tuesday with overwhelming support, which bodes well for facilities like Whittecar.

Rep. Tim Moffitt (R-Hendersonville), the main sponsor of HB 914, has a personal connection to this bill. Moffitt’s younger brother has severe autism, he told the committee, and Moffitt is his brother’s direct caregiver for about 60 days each year.

“It’s an important role. It’s a role that I cherish. It’s an appropriate role for an older brother, and we wouldn’t have it any other way, ”Moffitt said.

For a long time, Moffitt said he didn’t know how much his brother’s caregivers were getting.

“When I found out what the wages were, frankly I was embarrassed,” Moffitt said. “These direct care workers are so precious in our lives. We haven’t really evaluated them appropriately from a compensation perspective.

“So I’m on a mission. My mission is to make sure that we have enough resources to reach out to this group of direct caregivers where they can care for the most vulnerable people in our society. This is their role. It is our role as policy makers to achieve this.

The Support Our Direct Care Workforce bill provides for an increase in the Medicaid rate for agencies that employ these direct care workers in a variety of settings:

  • Workers who support people with disabilities through community alternative programs for children and adults;
  • Workers supporting Medicaid recipients under the State Innovations Waiver Program;
  • Workers providing care to survivors of head trauma;
  • Personal care service providers;
  • Workers in Intermediate Care Facilities for People with Developmental Disabilities (ICF / IID), including ICF / IID level group homes;
  • Home care providers;
  • Employees of nursing homes;
  • Workers at various residential behavioral health facilities.

Lowest payer

Adam Sholar of the North Carolina Health Care Facilities Association said about two-thirds of all nursing home residents in the state receive Medicaid reimbursement. He also explained that Medicaid reimburses care at the lowest rate of any other payer. He argued that this was the main factor contributing to nursing shortages in the state and he said he would like to see more funding from Medicaid.

The low Medicaid rate “really limits what we are able to pay in wages,” Sholar said. He said that in cost report data submitted to federal agencies, he can see that many facilities have operated with a net loss in recent years.

Medicaid reimbursement is set by the state, and state dollars cover one-third of the costs, with corresponding federal dollars being the difference.

“We are doing everything we can to increase salaries in order to try to attract more caregivers into the profession,” he said. “This is the element of Medicaid that we must see a significant movement for. We need more funding for the Medicaid program.

McLeod said about 92 organizations have come together to push for the passage of HB 914, ranging from direct care providers for people with disabilities to mental health agencies to advocacy groups.

“We brought all the industries together,” McLeod said. “What happened before that was that each of our industries would be looking for money specifically for our independent agency. We contacted all the different industries and said, we are just stealing Peter to pay Paul, we all share the same workers and we will have a much bigger voice, and people will understand how important this need is in the crisis that we are. let’s live. if we make a collective bill.

With the support of the 92 agencies and the transfer of the bill to the Senate, some of the challenges that Artis and others in other residential establishments face will be alleviated.

“Here is my home”

Reps Gale Adcock (D-Cary) and Hugh Blackwell (R-Valdese) have both expressed concern about how the money for the bill would be allocated. One mechanism is to put the measure in its entirety in the state budget, which has not yet been written. Another way to push for pay increases would be to pass HB 914 and HB 665 as stand-alone bills.

“I don’t like to be, even remotely, a harbinger of doom, but we lost this last time,” he said, referring to the state budget in 2019 which contained increases for direct social workers. This budget was opposed by Gov. Roy Cooper in a disagreement with the legislature over the expansion of Medicaid. “We have to be sure that we don’t lose it again, if there is a consensus on it, and we’re going to do it, it seems to me that the sooner we do it the better.”

“If we tie something big like this to this budget, we could tie it to an anchor and drop it off the boat,” Adcock said after the meeting. “This is not what we want to do.

This is not what they want either.

For Artis and other Whittecar employees, increasing wages could mean less overtime and more staff, and could ease the stress on their employees who sometimes have to take on multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Despite the challenges of the job, Artis said the residents are like family. Her colleague Shari Webb was sitting on a couch next to Stone, the two of them laughing as Webb nudged Stone in the ribs.

“I lived in Greensboro,” Stone said, referring to one of his old homes. “It’s much nicer [here.]”

“We’re here because we love what we’re doing,” Artis said. “That’s what we want to promote here, and that’s what we want to bring about, is someone who is going to treat them the same way we treat them.”

Although HB 914 and HB 665 had an easy path through the House committee on Tuesday, the future of compensation and retention for workers in long-term care facilities remains to be determined by the entire House. representatives and the Senate in the coming weeks.

NC Health News editor-in-chief Rose Hoban contributed to this story.

Correction: This story originally stated that the Whittecar Group Home was operated by Easter Seals UCP from North Carolina and Virginia.

North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit, state-wide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care related to North Carolina.


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