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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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WA Cares program should be a personal choice, not a mandate

By Sen. Mike Padden

By Sen. Mike Padden

As many people throughout Washington are struggling to make ends meet because of inflation and our state having the most expensive gas in the nation, the last thing they want is to pay a big new tax.

Yet that is exactly what Washington workers now face. A payroll tax, which went into effect on July 1, is being taken out of most employees’ paychecks. This tax is currently equal to $58 annually for every $10,000 in pay. It supports a government-run long-term care program called WA Cares, created by majority Democrats in the Legislature in 2019.

The long-term care program offers a lifetime payout of no more than $36,500, subject to inflation, regardless of how long a worker pays into it. In many cases, the benefits would be even less. The benefits provided by WA Cares won’t be available to qualified, eligible individuals until July 2026 at the earliest, so workers will have to pay taxes into this fund for three years until they could even see any benefits.

Legislative Democrats refused to stop this expensive and flawed long-term care program even after nearly 63% of Washington voters in 2019 opposed Advisory Vote 20, which was on the WA Cares enabling legislation (House Bill 1087). In 2021, I prime-sponsored Senate Bill 5234, which would have repealed this long-term care program.

Late in 2021, with the collection of this unpopular payroll tax to begin in 2022, workers were given a window of time to seek an exemption from it, but only if they purchased their own long-term care coverage and provided proof to the state. This resulted in an uproar from the public, so Democratic legislators chose to delay the collection of the tax until mid-2023 and add four specific exemptions that are ongoing but still exclude most Washington workers.

Both before and after the July 1 implementation date for the payroll tax, other legislators and I have received calls, emails and letters from constituents who are angry about being forced to pay this expensive tax for a long-term care program that will provide limited benefits. Many of their complaints centered on the hassle with applying for an exemption.

Here are just two examples of problems that constituents have shared with me about WA Cares:

  • A disabled veteran tried to file an exemption from WA Cares but did not know where to find the form that must be filled out and returned to receive that exemption. My office helped him locate the form and he is in the process of filing an exemption. However, he won’t receive a refund for the time during which he paid the payroll tax. It is so wrong that he won’t receive a refund from this program. This should not happen.
  • Several employees at a dairy farm near Elk, in north Spokane County, tried to get an exemption from WA Cares, but a couple of them were not informed there was a final step to take in the complicated process to let the state know, so they have to pay the expensive payroll tax for WA Cares as well as the cost for their private long-term care insurance.

Constituents in other senators’ districts also have complained about WA Cares, including how there was not enough public information about the exemption process or deadline. One of them is a retired firefighter who, being a retired person, did not pay attention to WA Cares and already has coverage through his retirement system. He recently rejoined the workforce part time, so he sought an exemption, but that application deadline ended last December.

Another problem with WA Cares is that it does not provide “portability,” which means if you pay taxes on this program and then move away from Washington, the program’s benefits won’t follow you and you can’t receive a refund on the taxes you’ve paid into it. In fact, the WA Cares oversight body, the LTSS Trust Commission, recommended to the Legislature last January that benefits be made portable for people who meet contribution requirements but move to another state before they need care.

Fortunately, four of my Republican colleagues, including Senate Republican Leader John Braun of Centralia, have put forth a proposal that would allow Washington workers to permanently opt out of participation in WA Cares once requested. There would be no need for proof of other long-term coverage, and depending on when an opt-out happens, a refund of the taxes someone paid in may be available. I support this proposal and plan to co-sponsor it once it’s filed before the 2024 session.

There are many good reasons why WA Cares should be optional and not mandatory for workers in our state. Long-term care coverage is a good thing to have, but the state should not be forcing workers to buy it. This should be a personal choice, not a government mandate.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, serves the 4th Legislative District.