Jim Palmquist: New Pa. Law Small But Important Step For Family Caregivers

You may not have noticed, but Pennsylvania’s General Assembly and Gov. Wolf quietly approved a new law in April 2016 that will be a big help to the 1.6 million state residents caring for older adults at home.

While the Caregiver, Advise, Record, Enable Act was unanimously approved by legislators and signed into law without much public fanfare, the new statute will be great news for caregivers when their loved ones go into the hospital — and as they return home. For the first time, hospitals will be required to record the name of the caregiver when their loved one is admitted, notify the caregiver when their loved one is to be moved or discharged, and instruct the caregiver on the medical tasks they will need to perform at home.

AARP led the fight for the CARE Act with the state Legislature because the role of family caregivers has greatly expanded in recent years. According to an AARP study, Pennsylvania’s 1.6 million family caregivers statewide provide 1.54 billion hours of unpaid assistance annually with a staggering value of $19.2 billion.

Those family caregivers need all the help they can get. AARP research shows 60 percent of family caregivers are juggling caregiving responsibilities with the demands of a full-time job. At the same time, the average caregiver will devote at least 20 hours a week to help family members. Of course there’s no such thing as an average caregiver, with some providing assistance for loved ones 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The nature of caregiving is changing too. Today that role means everything from arranging, coordinating and providing long-term services and support to navigating the complex health care system and performing more intensive care in the home. These days, family caregivers — often with little or no training — increasingly perform complex medical or nursing tasks like wound care, injections and medication management for their loved ones with multiple chronic physical and cognitive conditions.

Pennsylvania’s CARE Act won’t require a significant adjustment for many health care facilities. In fact, AARP worked with the Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania in developing the law so it builds off existing policies. Health care providers will have until April 2017 to formally incorporate family caregivers into their admission and discharge procedures.

Ensuring family caregivers receive the help they need also provides a powerful incentive for health care facilities. Any costs associated with CARE Act compliance should be more than offset by savings in reduced readmissions and penalties incurred under the Medicare Hospital Readmission Reduction program. The truth is caregivers who receive instruction in medical tasks are better equipped to care for their loved one at home, reducing the potential for hospital readmissions.

AARP is also committed to informing caregivers about their rights under the new law. We will be partnering with local health care officials for a series of community education events at hospitals, community centers and other public venues in the time leading up to the law taking effect.

In the bigger picture, helping our state’s family caregivers represents an essential strategy in addressing the fiscal challenges generated by Pennsylvania’s aging population. As home to the nation’s fourth-oldest population — with an average age that is expected to increase over the next 25 years — Pennsylvania is facing serious questions related to delivering health care and long-term services and support for our older adults.

While the vast majority of older Pennsylvanians want to remain in their homes and communities as they age, helping them do so is also good public policy. Without the help of family caregivers, too many of our seniors would end up in costly institutions — often paid for by the state, through Medicaid. So, by providing assistance to our family caregivers, we are effectively saving taxpayers money by delaying or even eliminating nursing home placements and allowing older adults to remain at home and in the community — where they want to be.

The bottom line is caregiving is now a common family dynamic. If you’re not a caregiver now, chances are you were one in the past or will become one in the future. While it can be a difficult and emotionally taxing job, caregivers consider it a labor of love and simply wouldn’t have it any other way. Thankfully, Pennsylvania’s new CARE Act will make that job a little easier.

Jim Palmquist, who lives in Lower Macungie Township, is the volunteer state president for AARP Pennsylvania.

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