The state's web site supporting its long-term-care plan recently crashed after Washington workers scrambled to file for an exemption.
Gov. Jay Inslee should take the hint and use his emergency powers to temporarily suspend the tax and extend deadlines for WA Cares, as 23 state senators have requested. Even a few months' delay will give lawmakers a chance to close loopholes, answer questions and allow Washington's workers to access the exemption — if they still want to after better understanding the benefit. A recent AARP survey showed 51% of Washington voters supported the tax and the support increased as people learned more about the benefit.
Advocates for the WA Cares Fund admit that there are bugs in the public benefit, arguing that lawmakers can make adjustments after the Employment Security Department starts collecting the tax on Jan. 1.
Lawmakers passed HB 1087 in 2019 to provide some economic assistance for Washingtonians paying for nursing facility stays, personal caregivers and other critical supports or modifications to safely age at home. The lifetime benefit of $36,500, indexed to inflation, won't pay for extended care — it's estimated to cover only a few months in a facility or up to a year of in-home services.
But the private market for long-term-care insurance is struggling, according to state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler. Insurance providers are fighting to remain financially solvent. Recent premium increases have ranged from 20% to 79% a year.
To fund WA Cares, which will begin accepting claims in 2025, lawmakers levied a 0.58% payroll tax on all workers with no income limit. Employees earning $50,000 will pay $290 annually. Those making $100,000 a year will contribute $580, with higher earners paying more.
WA Cares is designed to be a universal program, like Medicare, but the law allows workers to opt out if they already have private long-term-care insurance before Nov. 1 and apply for an exemption by Dec. 31. Those who are exempted can never re-enroll.
The rush to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime exemption is likely fueled, in part, by known flaws in the program: People fewer than 10 years from retirement will pay the tax but won't be eligible for benefits. People who live in other states, like Idaho or Oregon, but work in Washington will also pay the tax without reaping the reward. Other payees will lose out if they move out of Washington.
Lawmakers will consider fixes to these loopholes when they convene this session, said Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle. Macri, who has been the House Democratic Caucus lead on long-term care, also serves on the Long-Term Services and Supports Trust Commission. She said the commission is working on its recommendations now and sees no benefit to delaying the launch.
In other words, workers who will have to pay but never receive a benefit will have to trust that lawmakers who set up a flawed program will make the needed fixes.
Instead, lawmakers should build trust with workers by fixing known issues before the state starts collecting the tax. Inslee's spokeswoman Tara Lee said the governor will consider recommendations but does not intend to delay the plan's implementation date.
The governor's office doesn't believe he has the authority to hit the pause button until lawmakers return to session, according to Lee. That's an odd position, considering the broad powers he's used to address concerns during the public health emergency — including tax relief. As critics point out, his Proclamation 20-20.12, which suspended laws and rules relating to tax penalties, fees, interest and due dates "to provide tax relief through the Department of Revenue" recently expired.
Lawmakers have taken a bold step in attempting to address the steep cost of long-term care in Washington. It's worth postponing the launch for a little while so they can get it right.