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WA decides: Initiative 2124 to make the state’s long-term care program optional

A man talks into a microphone while wearing a mask while surrounded by large wood desks and large leather chairs.
Ted S. Warren
Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, left, speaks on the floor of the Senate, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., during debate on a measure that would delay implementation of a long-term care program and the payroll tax that pays for it.

This article is part of a series by Washington State Standard looking at statewide initiatives on Washington’s 2024 November ballot.

What would the initiative do?

Initiative 2124 would amend the state’s long-term care program, known as WA Cares, so all workers would have a choice about whether to participate in it and can opt out at any time. As is, most workers in the state must take part in WA Cares and pay a tax supporting the program.

What is WA Cares?

WA Cares applies a 0.58% tax on the paychecks of workers in Washington. The tax went into effect in July 2023.

Beginning in July 2026, those who qualify can begin accessing the program’s long-term care benefit, which has a lifetime cap of $36,500, adjusted over time for inflation. The money can be used to offset expenses like caretaking, equipment, medication and meals for people who are older, injured or disabled.

Some workers aren’t required to participate. These include people who live outside of Washington but work in the state, spouses of active-duty military service members, those with non-immigrant work visas, and veterans who meet certain disability requirements.

People with qualifying private long-term care insurance could opt out through December 2022. Nearly 500,000 individuals opted out before that deadline, according to an October 2022 report.

Why is the initiative on the ballot?

Let’s Go Washington, a conservative group sponsored by hedge fund manager Brian Heywood, collected around 424,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot.

WA Cares has drawn criticism since it became law in 2019. Opponents say too many people paying the tax may never use the full benefit. Another argument against the program is that the benefit is too small to be meaningful when stacked against the potentially heavy costs of long-term care.

Critics have also raised concerns about the fund’s finances, which some say are unsustainable and could require a higher tax in the future to keep the program solvent.

Another major criticism was that the benefit was not “portable,” meaning those who leave the state to retire couldn’t access it even if they paid into the fund during their career in Washington. The Legislature passed a law this year to make the benefit available to people who leave the state if they’ve paid into it for a certain number of years.

If the initiative passes, what would the consequences be?

Making the program voluntary, without other changes to benefits or premiums, could send it into a financial death spiral, according to an analysis from December and program supporters.

The expectation is that people are less likely to need care, and higher earners – who also pay more in taxes to support the program because the tax is a percentage of pay – are more likely to bail out. That would leave fewer people, paying less in taxes, but more likely to require care.

This is why WA Cares proponents say that if I-2124 passes, it would effectively be a repeal. Supporters of keeping WA Cares intact include SEIU 775, whose members include thousands of long-term care workers, AARP, and the Washington State Budget and Policy Center.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence.

Laurel Demkovich is a reporter for the Washington State Standard.