COMMENTARY: Some victories, some roadblocks for consumer and healthcare issues

Undaunted by COVID-19 and the challenges it created, our elected officials spent the 2021 90-day legislative session weighing the pros and cons of bills in a virtual environment. Even though this was a highly unusual period in Olympia politics for the Legislature and advocates, AARP Washington persisted and secured victories that increase consumer protections, improve healthcare, and promote financial resiliency.

Some priority legislation ran into roadblocks in the House and Senate but were transformed into emergency orders like ending the use of credit scores to determine insurance premiums, securing budget requests to ease our housing crisis, and expanding technology access for older adults.

Legislators did reach across the aisle to pass a few standout bills that penalize price gouging during emergencies, improve the well-being of long-term care residents, and expand access to the Washington Cares fund.

Price gouging.

As the state was caught in the throes of the pandemic, scam artists were preying on fears and scarcity by selling protective masks, hand sanitizer and similar items at vastly inflated prices. Senate Bill 5191, requested by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and sponsored by Sen. Jeannie Darneille (D-Tacoma), increases penalties for those capitalizing on emergency situations. This new law protects consumers, particularly those who are more vulnerable, like older adults and low-income Washingtonians. Washington now has a clear definition of price gouging and a description of the types of products and services needed during an emergency. It also limits price increases to 15 percent of the original cost.

Addressing complaints in long-term care facilities.

Many long-term care residents have experienced a decreased quality of life with restrictions that have cut them off from seeing family and friends. AARP members have shared stories about a lack of communication happening in long-term care facilities like unreturned phone calls and e-mails, and limited support to check on the health and safety of loved ones.

With the passing of House Bill 1218, sponsored by Reps. Jessica Bateman (D-Olympia) and Tarra Simmons (D-Kingston), facilities are required to be responsive to external communications, including answering the phone and returning calls in a timely fashion. The legislation also requires facilities to have enough phones or other communication devices to serve all residents and allows visitation to address social isolation and loneliness.

Improving the Washington Cares Fund.

Our long-term care system needs continual improvement to keep up with the increasing demand of a growing older population, and affordability remains a significant issue. Seventy percent of Washingtonians 65 and older will require some assistance to live independently as they age.

In 2019, Washington passed legislation to create an innovative new public program to help Washingtonians better prepare for a long-term illness, injury or disability. Workers will fund the Washington Cares program through a small payroll premium of 58 cents on $100 earned, providing a benefit of up to $36,500 to help people live independently.

House Bill 1323, sponsored by Rep. Steve Tharinger (D-Port Angeles), expands coverage to include tribal employers, people who acquired a disability before the age of 18, and the self-employed who are the power of the new “gig economy.” It also has a provision that allows current long-term care policyholders to opt out of the payroll premium.

While we embrace the positive outcomes of several bills, we will continue to work alongside our legislators in a bipartisan way to advance legislation that helps older Washingtonians. Competing priorities and political disagreements impede progress on several issues.  Our elected officials need to put their differences aside and find common ground to address the needs of all generations.


Cathy MacCaul, who wrote this article, is AARP Washington’s advocacy director.