My Turn: Health care workers marginalized in Biden stimulus proposal

For the Monitor
Published: 1/24/2021 6:00:05 AM

On Jan. 20, the United States turned a page with the inauguration of President Joe Biden. The televised concert that followed was full of homages to the health care workers who have fought COVID-19.

Unfortunately those same workers are left out of President Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus package. No new dollars are allocated for health care provider relief.

This is part of a pattern. The $900 billion stimulus package that passed into law in December contained $15 billion for Broadway theaters and the entertainment industry, and even a tax break for corporate meal expenses (the so-called “three-martini lunch”), yet only $3 billion in health care provider relief.

It appears President Biden’s team wants to give the states flexibility with a proposed $350 billion in state and local government relief, and count on them doing right by frontline workers. That shows the lessons of the last recession have been lost. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocated $103 billion to states for Medicaid, and many states just simply pocketed the money by reducing their own contributions to Medicaid – as no “maintenance of effort” was required.

The most recent national study found that over 90% of registered nurses nationally are women. This workforce is aging. The average RN was 51 in 2017. Over 92% of licensed practical nurses were women, and the average LPN was 52. For licensed nursing assistants, recent New Hampshire data shows that 88% are women, and it is a younger workforce. More than one-third of LNAs are 34 or younger. This is a demographic that must often balance child care needs with very modest wages.

We need to attract more people into our direct care workforce. Yet wages are directly related to the number of state Medicaid clients in one’s work setting. In New Hampshire, “The Pledge” to oppose broad-based taxation has been kept, in no small part, by simply shorting Medicaid wage costs. Effectively a workforce largely comprised of women has been “taxed” so that others might not be.

That our direct care workforce is so marginalized by governmental policies is at odds with political rhetoric about how “heroic” they are and also at odds with rhetoric about righting the wrongs of gender inequities.

In improving President Biden’s stimulus proposal one need only look to his campaign platform, which is still online as I write this: “There is no substitute for ensuring worker safety, but all frontline workers putting their lives on the line should receive premium pay for their work. The Trump administration should immediately work with Congress to pass a bold premium pay initiative.”

President Biden’s stimulus proposal must be improved by our congressional delegation to make it consistent with what was proposed by candidate Biden. Such an improvement would also be consistent with House-passed legislation that was blocked in the Senate. That legislation would have provided $200 billion in funding for “pandemic premium pay” that employers could use to pay essential workers – with a $10,000 cap per worker.

Words cannot do justice to how harrowing the COVID-19 pandemic has been for our health care heroes. They have witnessed unimaginable loss and suffering, and the emotional repercussions will linger with them, and their families, well past the time when we are all vaccinated. They have labored past the point of exhaustion, pulling overtime to cover for colleagues who quit out of fear over a deadly virus or who had to quarantine due to their own COVID-19 exposure or infection. They deserve recognition by their government.

(Brendan Williams is the president/CEO of the New Hampshire Health Care Association.)

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