High turnover and low wages, caregiver agencies looking at governor's race for future of Medicaid

WESTLAKE, Ohio - Daily life for Leslie Linnevers is about going to work, making art in her spare time, with the occasional special visitor stopping by.

"Yeah, Channel 5 is here right now," said Linnevers when she answered the phone during our visit.

Caregivers like Tara Hannah make it all possible for people with developmental disabilities like Leslie.

"Getting them to doctors' appointments, getting them out in the community," said Welcome House Medical Care Coordinator Tara Hannah. "Baseball games, out to dinner, lunch, movies."

She cares for some of Ohio's most vulnerable people and they often need caregivers for their entire lives. Many agencies are having trouble staffing those positions.

Tara says it's rewarding work but not everyone is cut out for it, so turnover is pretty high.

"It does have its stresses to it," said Hannah.

The amount caregivers get paid isn't helping.

Their hourly wages are determined by Medicaid reimbursements, set by the federal government and the state.

"It's not really high, it's not really low," said Welcome House Executive Director Tony Thomas.

He said Ohio's caregiver wages fall right in the middle. Welcome House starts entry-level workers at $9.75 an hour. He says a few years ago, Governor Kasich was able to get more money so caregivers' pay could increase.

"And of course, as soon as we made a dent in our wages, we saw other entities like Walmart and Target to up in their wages as well," said Thomas.

Now, Walmart said the average rate for a full-time worker is $13.64 an hour. 

What Tony can't match in hourly pay, he can only make up for elsewhere.

"Walmart doesn't promise hours," said Thomas. "We can give them all the hours in the world."

Welcome House provides steady work. The 47 locations house more than 200 people and each home needs a handful of staff members. The organization recruits and keeps workers by providing them loans through the company when they need it, and look to technology to help workers be more efficient, all because hiring more workers isn't an option.

The technology would help spread the same amount of caregivers over more patients, especially overnight. Instead of having one caregiver in a four-person group home, one centralized caregiver could monitor patients in many different locations, providing care within minutes when needed. A June 15 TechSummit put on by the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities and The Ohio State University will help state officials and organizations see what's possible.

"Over the years, we have not had the kind of increases in that Medicaid rate that have allowed us to increase the wages for our frontline staff to pay them what I think we owe them," said Thomas.

Organizations like Welcome House are paying close attention to Ohio's Governor's race which could affect Medicaid reimbursements. Democrat Rich Cordray is looking to continue Governor Kasich's Medicaid expansion. Republican Mike DeWine favors a block grant model that experts say would likely reduce the amount of money in the system.

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