Nikki Hays, left, who lives at the Reality Unlimited group home in Eau Claire, talks Thursday with group home owner Audrey Nelson. (Photo by Julian Emerson).
Nikki Hays, left, who lives at the Reality Unlimited group home in Eau Claire, talks Thursday with group home owner Audrey Nelson. (Photo by Julian Emerson).

Findings echo what Vice President Joe Biden is proposing on national level. 

A task force designed to address challenges faced by caregivers for the elderly, children, and people with cognitive, physical and behavioral disabilities in Wisconsin recommended a series of proposals on Thursday to address those concerns. 

Gov. Tony Evers’ Task Force on Caregiving voted to send more than a dozen recommendations to the governor ranging from better pay and benefits for caregivers, to expansion of the Medicaid program, to improved training opportunities for those workers. 

Caregivers have faced low salaries and challenges accessing health insurance for years, and attracting and maintaining employees in those fields has proven difficult. Those challenges have become more pronounced during the coronavirus pandemic, task force members said during Thursday’s virtual meeting of the group. 

“We need to recognize the importance of this workforce,” task force co-chair Todd Costello said, noting the importance of caregivers’ work during the coronavirus pandemic, during which they have been at risk of contracting the contagious COVID-19 virus. 

Boosting pay and benefits for caregivers is key to keeping those employees in the workforce, which would ensure quality care for the people they care for, task force members said. Historically caregivers have not received salaries that pay enough to retain many in the profession, leading to relatively high turnover.

Audrey Nelson operates two group homes in Eau Claire that serve seven residents who have suffered brain injuries. She said she would like to pay her employees more, but doing so can make them ineligible for BadgerCare health insurance and is difficult given the payment group homes receive through the state. 

As part of the current funding process, Nelson said, she isn’t asked how much she pays her workers. 

“That isn’t even part of the discussion right now,” she said, noting that was the case when she started her business, Reality Unlimited, 25 years ago. “It should be more of a focus, but it’s not.”

Caregiver pay must be addressed, Nelson said, along with better benefits. She said she backs the state Legislature accepting federal Medicaid funding to make that possible. Doing so is one of the proposals that will go to the governor, who is scheduled to receive the task force report by Sept. 30. 

The Republican-controlled state Legislature has repeatedly denied accepting federal Medicaid dollars, and task force members acknowledged uncertainty about whether lawmakers will take up their recommendations for a vote. Earlier this year lawmakers failed to approve any of the recommendations made by a water quality task force. 

“This is by no means the end of the work we need to do together,” state Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm told task force members in reference to advocating for legislative approval of the recommendations. 

Challenges faced by caregivers in Wisconsin mirror those nationally. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act approved earlier this year included federal money for child care centers, but many have struggled to continue to provide services. Negotiations for a new relief package currently stalled in Congress would include billions more for that purpose.

Democrartic presidential candidate Joe Biden called the situation amid the pandemic a “childcare emergency.” To address it, he released a Caregivers Plan in July that calls for spending $775 billion during the next decade on early childhood education and elder care. 

Biden’s plan would increase Medicaid funding to states to reduce waiting lists for those in need of home care, allowing them to avoid having to move to nursing homes. It would boost wages and provide health insurance for caregivers through federal standards. 

President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget proposal called for $1 billion to expand child care access, but the inclusion of $8.6 million for a border wall with Mexico as part of the spending package made it a non-starter with Congressional Democrats. Nursing home administrators have criticized the president for not providing more resources to their facilities during the pandemic, during which many elderly residents died from COVID-19. 

Nelson said she hopes Wisconsin lawmakers can find a tangible way to show they value caregivers. Doing so will help her continue to provide care for clients like Nikki Hays, who has lived at one of the group homes Nelson owns for the past two years. 

“I’m doing well. I like it here,” said Hays, who suffered a brain injury three years ago. “This place is good for me.”

Nelson said she has struggled at times to maintain employees, although she is lucky because she has access to UW-Eau Claire students seeking to work in the field and build their resumes. However, she said, not all caregivers are as fortunate. 

“A lot of providers have a hard time finding and keeping workers,” Nelson said. “If the state wants us to do this work, they’re going to have to come up with the funding.”