Thousands of American families daily face the difficult decision of how to secure in-home services for themselves or a loved one.
For an individual with disabilities or an elderly person, remaining in the home rather than an institutionalized setting is of paramount importance. Hiring someone to help with daily tasks can make it possible for people to remain in their homes.
Unfortunately, this essential option for in home support is being threatened by the Obama administration without meaningful consideration of the impact it could have on the disability community.
If successful, their policy change will sharply increase the costs of in-home services, force people with disabilities to bring multiple people into their homes, reduce the availability of family and friend attendants and cut the take home pay of attendants.
At issue is an exemption in a 75-year-old law called the "Fair Labor Standards Act," which guarantees qualified workers a minimum wage and overtime pay.
When it was passed, this law included an exemption for those providing "companionship services," a category that included in-home personal assistance services.
The reason for the carve-out was such services aren't like a normal nine-to-five job. In-home attendants often work odd hours and it may often be a family member they're working for. They grow close to the people they work for and the continuity of care they provide an individual with disabilities is vitally important.
Today, there are more than 56 million individuals with disabilities in the U.S. Many of them will need assistance at some point to stay in their own homes.
Also, the needs of the elderly continue to grow, and that number will climb sharply as baby boomers retire. Now, national long-term care costs already top $342 billion a year.
Home and community-based services — which are more cost-effective — can be one answer to control costs, but not if the administration gets its way on the Labor Department's proposed rule.
Those who want to close this companionship exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act argue that in-home workers deserve the same rights to minimum wage and overtime protections as other domestic workers.
This campaign has good intentions, but NCIL believes the way the current rule is written, it would have disastrous unintended consequences and make in-home services unaffordable for many individuals with disabilities and seniors.
This rule change would effectively eliminate the "live-in companion" model, where an attendant lives with an individual, which for many families is an ideal arrangement.
If this exemption is eliminated, NCIL and many others in the disability community believe it will significantly impact the continuity of care provided to individuals with disabilities, particularly people with the most significant disabilities.
Providers simply will not be able to afford the overtime pay given existing reimbursement levels and will need to replace home care workers before they reach overtime eligibility.
Also, it could potentially add to the out of pocket costs for individuals, and according to the administration's own analysis, the rule change will force some individuals to leave their own homes and go into an institution.
Experts who've studied the rule note that it could even end up limiting the ability of individuals with disabilities and seniors to enlist family and friends to work in paid positions, putting another critically important option at risk.
This rule change would add significant new costs to the already cash-strapped state Medicaid programs. Today, Medicaid is the single biggest payer for long-term services and supports, spending $140 billion every year
on this important service.
The National Association of Medicaid Directors has warned that subjecting in-home providers to these labor laws would significantly raise program expenses. And they agree that this rule change will force people with disabilities and seniors into more expensive institutional settings.
A cumbersome, one-size-fits-all federal in-home worker rule will put the most desired option, staying in one's home, in jeopardy and drive up costs for the Medicaid program.
The Obama administration should resist this effort and work with the disability community on common sense solutions.
Kelly Buckland is executive director of the National Council on Independent Living.