Congress can safeguard the disabled and seniors. Delaware’s senators should lead the way | Opinion – The News Journal

Mike Brickner and Laura Waterland  |  Special to the USA TODAY Network

As our country bears witness to a persistent and evolving pandemic, our elected leaders face a critical choice to invest in, care for, and protect our growing aging population, individuals with disabilities, and the workers and family members who care for them.

Congress is now debating how to reinvest in people and jobs. The Better Care Better Jobs Act would provide billions of dollars to both stimulate the economy and provide the care infrastructure we desperately need. The legislation begins to rectify the dire imbalances between funding for nursing facilities and funding for in-home supports on which millions of families rely. Currently, 40 Democratic senators are co-sponsors of this legislation and President Biden recommended $400 billion in funding for such a proposal. We urge Sen. Chirs Coons and Sen. Tom Carper to add their names to a bill that will create a pathway that transforms the lives of people with disabilities, seniors, and workers in Delaware and across the country.

COVID-19 has taught us much about the perils of long term care facilities. Across the nation, less than 1% of our population lives in nursing homes and other institutions – but close to 33% of COVID deaths occurred there. In Delaware, the percentage was even higher — with institutions accounting for more than 41% of our COVID deaths.

The fact is that most people want to live at home with the supports they need. In a 2018 AARP study, almost 80% of those aged 50 and up preferred to age in place. Many thousands of Delawareans with disabilities, throughout their lifespan, currently rely on home and community services to support this desire to live in the community, but there are huge gaps in services.

Care in the community also costs less. In Delaware, we spend twice as much per capita on people in institutions as on people who receive home and community-based services. The Better Care Better Jobs Act leverages federal dollars to allow states to use Medicaid funds for support in communities. Many thousands of people in Delaware would benefit. Your grandmother could stay in her apartment without your mother having to quit her job to care for her. Young adults with developmental disabilities would have quicker access to a broader range of community living options instead of having to wait until they are facing an emergency, abuse, neglect, or homelessness to get residential rehabilitation services, as is currently the case. Enhanced, permanent funding will support innovation in the types of services available, and in delivery systems.

Another key component of the Better Care Better Jobs Act is to improve wages and benefits for direct support professionals and other community-based workers. Wage increases can help lift individuals out of poverty, combat workforce shortages, and improve the quality of services. By providing better pay and benefits, we would not only make these jobs more attractive, but also address a matter of basic fairness. The people who do these important jobs are overwhelmingly women of color, who have historically been denied employment protections and fair wages. Their average income is $17,200 per year with an hourly wage of $12 or less. We can and must do better.

But this is more than a policy issue; living at home or in the community — not segregated into institutions — is a civil right. The 1999 Supreme Court decision, Olmstead v. L.C., held that segregating people into institutions when they could safely live in the community with supports is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Better Care Better Jobs Act provides the infrastructure needed for millions of people to be able to avoid segregation. Without this infrastructure, this right to integration is nothing but words on paper.

Across the country, nearly 12 million seniors and people with disabilities need long-term services and care — most of us want and deserve to receive such services at home or in the community, as opposed to in an institution. That’s why this legislation is so crucial. Members of Congress and advocates are fighting to include full funding for this proposal in the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill that is now moving through Congress. Victory is far from assured and every voice and every vote matters.

Coons and Carper have a historic opportunity to improve workplace protections for homecare workers and expand access to services that millions want and need. Let them know that in Delaware, we believe in the dignity of seniors, people with disabilities, and workers and want our senators to co-sponsor the Better Care Better Jobs Act.

Mike Brickner is executive director of the ACLU of Delaware. Laura Waterland is project director of CLASI’s Disabilities Law Program.