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Don’t Cut Long-Term Care, Save It

The elderly and disabled deserve better

Jun. 9, 2015
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Sarah Retzlaff

Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposes to privatize the long-term care system, which would have dire consequences for people with disabilities and the elderly.

It would lower care attendants’ wages, making the care profession undesirable as a job. There is already a shortage of care attendants when the care profession is one of the fastest growing jobs in America. Doesn’t Wisconsin need jobs?

Walker’s plan would eliminate a client’s right to interview, hire and fire their attendants. In the long run the governor’s new long-term care plan would create waiting lists for the elderly and the disabled, costing the state more revenue. Inevitably, people with disabilities and the elderly would end up living in institutions hiding these special people in closets. Is this how Wisconsin treats the disabled?

Fortunately, the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee rejected Walker’s plans for long-term care. But the Republican legislators on the committee passed their own plan to overhaul the system and have kept open the door to privatization. Lynn Breedlove, of the Wisconsin Long-Term Care Coalition, called the new plan “the governor’s proposal in sheep’s clothing.”

That plan will go to the state Legislature for a vote as part of the next budget.


Care Attendants Are Important

The changes to the state’s long-term care system may just be a few lines in the two-year state budget, but if they are passed they would have a huge impact on my life and the lives of the more than 55,000 elderly and disabled people in Wisconsin who use these services.

I’m a 47-year-old author with severe cerebral palsy and a lifelong Wisconsinite. I’m unable to use my hands. A person has to bathe, dress, toilet, groom and feed me.

I write using Morse code swaying my head back and forth spelling out each letter of a word. Fortunately, I use a word prediction program called CoWriter, which allows me to start spelling a word and I choose the word that I want from a list.

My day starts at 10. I write eight hours a day. I work in the afternoon and have supper before going back to the computer to write until 11. In fact I wrote a first draft of a middle grade manuscript in four months for my literary agent. My agent has agreed to represent all of my books. I have a career!

My mother has sacrificed and dedicated her entire life to me. To the system, I was an unemployed statistic too disabled to be employed, but my mother put me through college—I have a Bachelor of Science degree in English with a writing minor from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and a Liberal Arts degree from Madison College—and allowed me to live with her to pursue a writing career.

But in recent years my mother has become forgetful and is having trouble caring for me. I have home health care, which allows me to live at home and have care attendants come each day to get me out of bed. My mother can’t get me out of bed anymore.

Under the current system, I am able to hire and fire attendants. A care agency screens and recruits job applicants for open shifts and the client interviews the applicant for the job. Clients have the final say about who takes care of them. A client and a care attendant need to trust each other.

But attendants come and go like the wind and some are better than others. Every time a care attendant leaves me, I have to start over. It leaves a hole in my heart. I’m lucky that I don’t need much care. Some clients have catheters, respirators, pumps or feeding tubes, requiring specialized, trained, reliable attendants.

I have been lucky to have good care attendants, which has allowed me to write two manuscripts in the past two years. In February one of my best care attendants left me for a better paying job at a nursing home. I really liked her. We were together for two years and became friends. It hurt me, but I understood.

The current system needs more revenue, not less, to pay care attendants a decent hourly wage. How does the state expect care attendants to make a living on $11 an hour only working 40 hours a week? That’s why there is a high turnover rate of care attendants. People see care work as the bottom of the career ladder. Every care attendant that I had wants to be a nurse or some other profession.

Care attendants should earn $15 an hour, have a two-week paid vacation and five paid sick days a year. Why not let the client review an attendant’s attendance and performance each year? The longer an attendant stays with a client they should be given a raise. All that attendants want is to be treated with respect and make a living. 

Lives are in jeopardy. The disabled deserve better. 


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