Each day, thousands of individuals with disabilities and older adults are provided with specialized care with Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) in Minnesota. In fact, Community-Based Services support 73,000 people with disabilities and 35,000 older adults in the state.

Minnesota has always been a leader when it comes to providing innovative services to the elderly and people with disabilities, and was a pioneer in providing services in regional treatment centers dedicated to serving four individuals in one home setting rather than sometimes hundreds in a large mental health facility. The services provided to these individuals have, without a doubt, vastly improved since the time when institutionalization was widely implemented. Providing services in community-based settings like foster care (group) homes, elderly care facilities, and home-based settings increase independence, promote health and safety, foster skill development, provide job coaching, meet medical needs, and foster essential relationships. As Minnesotans, it is our duty to continue the momentum and continue to be a leader when it comes to reforming these services and striving to provide the best possible care for the individuals receiving HCBS.

Minnesota’s legislative session [began] March 8. One of the first and most important decisions to be made is how to disburse our $900 million surplus. A coalition that advocates on behalf of those receiving HCBS believes that some of that funding should go to service providers so they can invest in person-centered initiatives, quality improvement plans, and provide a wage increase for direct care workers and staff.

The Best Life Alliance is a nonpartisan coalition of more than 130 Minnesota service providers, caregivers, people with disabilities, older adults, family members, and community partners advocating for Home and Community-Based Services. The Best Life Alliance’s core priority is a 5 percent rate increase in 2016 that will support a strong workforce and reforms.

It’s no secret that this industry is struggling with an increasingly unstable workforce. There are several reasons why service providers are experiencing so many challenges in trying to recruit and retain good workers. Most of these reasons are centralized around a single issue: wages. In the last 10 years, caregiver wages increased only 10.5 percent while the inflation rate has risen 21 percent.

Often the work that caregivers do is labeled as “unskilled” because many service providers do not require higher education or certification for employment. This could not be further from the truth. Direct care workers are often asked to work in stressful, demanding and thankless situations. In addition, caregivers and staff provide the day-to-day services that allow individuals in HCBS to live a life where all of their health, physical, and social needs are cared for. They play other crucial roles in the lives of the people they support, and can have a profound impact on the quality of life by making a personal connection with the individuals they serve. Often, a staff member can be the closest thing an individual receiving services has to a family. Caregivers know first hand the positive impact that HCBS can have on service recipients and each day it becomes more difficult to retain those members of our workforce.

When we struggle to provide adequate compensation to the caregivers who are invested in providing personalized and compassionate care, we struggle to provide the best services possible to people living in these settings. When we cannot keep up with inflation or continue to stand out in a workforce with other struggling industries, we lose sight of why we as Minnesotans have made the decision to be innovators and pioneers in the HCBS field, and we fail those who we have worked so hard to provide services for in community-based settings.

In order for service providers to retain and invest in these caregivers and staff, we need to be able to offer them competitive wages that allow people to not just make a living from their role, but to make a career from it. With the anticipation of longer lifespans and a growing population, we must also anticipate an increased need for HCBS in Minnesota in the years to come. With that comes a greater need for workers in an already struggling industry, which is why it is crucial to keep the wage increases parallel to inflation as the cost of living rises.

The Best Life Alliance’s objective is to pass 2016 legislation that includes a 5 percent rate increase and reforms for Home and Community-Based Services to support people with disabilities, older adults, and their caregivers/direct support professionals. The increase would not only help fund wage increases for direct care workers, but help fund necessary reforms to our current service model.

Please contact your legislator and encourage them to support this upcoming legislation that will affect so many people across our state - about 100,000 care recipients and almost 100,000 caregivers. Let’s continue our legacy of recognizing the value of advancing community based services in our state.

~ Claire Farmer-Lies