The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the critical need for caregivers – individuals who show up to support the lives, health and functioning of others and, in the process, put their own health and lives at risk. But their importance is not new to me, or to the individuals with severe disabilities I work with, many of whom depend on compassionate, competent and reliable caregivers for their health and quality of life.
Michelle Meade is an associate professor in the University of Michigan School of Medicine and co-director of the Center for Disability Health and Wellness.
Quality caregiving can allow these Michiganders to obtain and maintain employment, to manage health and secondary conditions, and to stay out of hospitals and nursing homes. In Michigan, over 1.3 million family caregivers provide this hands-on support for seniors and individuals with disabilities, putting their own health, employment and income at risk in the process.
Paid caregiving assistance may also be available in this state, through select private insurance or though programs such as Home Help available through Michigan Medicaid. Through this program, caregivers of a Medicaid beneficiary, including relatives, can be paid by the state; however, the rate of pay that is offered is so low that they can typically make more working at McDonalds where they may qualify for medical insurance and other benefits.
While the low wages of these essential workers may be unlikely to change any time soon – particularly in light of the economic recession we expect to result from the COVID-19 pandemic – there are other steps that local and state players can take to support this class of essential workers. Here are my top three:
Offer tax credits and deductions
One potential way that Michigan can optimize caregiver take-home pay or cover the out-of-pocket expenses for family caregivers is to provide tax credits or deductions. Credits already exist for seniors and individuals with disabilities; Michigan should build on this, and similar programs, and allow certified caregivers to also qualify.
Subsidize the cost of health insurance
Lack of health insurance is one of the largest disincentives for working as a caregiver. Michigan can use Medicaid expansion and Marketplace insurance exchange programs to address this problem. For example, programs like Michigan Medicaid Caretaker Relatives can be expanded from just covering parents caring for a dependent child to covering family caregivers of adults with severe disabilities.
Detroit and Michigan put the world on wheels, however, too often caregivers in our state are unable to provide reliable assistance to individuals with disabilities because of unreliable transportation. Many companies provide discounts for our military heroes. Automobile manufacturers, tire dealerships and mechanics could offer discounts for our certified caregivers. Local and regional transit authorities could provide free or reduced cost fares to certified caregivers.
Let’s figure out a way to support the future of those who we rely on to help some of the most vulnerable citizens of our state.
In brief, we know that permanently increasing wages for caregivers may seem overwhelming and infeasible; however, we cannot allow the perceived inability to do that thing prevent us from doing anything.
Michigan—at local, county and state levels—needs to commit to doing a better job of supporting both paid and unpaid caregivers. We need sustainable solutions that provide caregivers with the support, skills and incentives they need to provide compassionate, competent and reliable care.