1199 press conference outside DC Superior Court for class action lawsuit for home health aides, Dec. 11, 2014.  Photo:  Jay Mallin   jay@jaymallinphotos.com

1199 press conference outside DC Superior Court for class action lawsuit for home health aides, Dec. 11, 2014. Photo: Jay Mallin jay@jaymallinphotos.com

As our parents and grandparents age, many are choosing home care services. For some, it’s to get 24/7 care. For others, it’s to get assistance for a few hours a day with bathing, cleaning or cooking so that they can live at home for as long as possible. Yet a lack of oversight in the industry has set off a chain of problems for home care workers who want to deliver the best care possible.

I’ve been a home care provider in D.C. for nearly 10 years, and over that time I’ve cared for D.C. residents from Brookland and Adams Morgan to Southwest Waterfront. Still, even as elected leaders in the District and nationwide call for a strong long-term care system that meets the needs of our seniors, the D.C. industry is imploding. Our city’s home care crisis is reaching a tipping point. If providers, elected officials, employers and the community don’t work together to chart new direction, too many seniors won’t have access to the care they need and providers won’t be able to stay in the field and support their families.

For too long, D.C. regulators have turned a blind eye to major problems in the home care industry. In the past year alone, we’ve just been lurching from one catastrophe to another.

Last year, 13 agencies – including the one I worked for – were suspended during an FBI investigation that uncovered more than $80 million in Medicaid fraud. During the shutdown, many of my co-workers and I continued to care for our clients but went without pay. I lost my home and my car and feel a continued domino effect.

Beyond this fraud, taxpayer-funded home care agencies are stealing the wages of providers. Some pay us below the legally-required living wage and deny us paid sick leave or overtime. In the face of government inaction and a lack of enforcement, home care workers in the city have filed three class action lawsuits alleging $150 million in stolen wages against local agencies.

Meanwhile, the D.C. Board of Nursing has failed to re-certify approximately 60% of the District’s home care workers, abdicating responsibility to an industry that often reports conflicting fees, processes or deadlines to its workforce. This situation is unacceptable.

Our city’s regulators must ensure that our tax dollars support a fully-functioning home care system and that agencies follow the law rather than take advantage of D.C. residents.

Home care work, which includes bathing, dressing and preparing meals for older Americans and people with disabilities, builds character because you get to learn from the generation that came before you. Some home care workers educate family members on client care, others provide catheter, colostomy and tracheotomy care. It’s not something that everyone can do, but the connections you build are life-changing.

Sadly, low wages paid by agencies weaken the workforce. After nearly a decade in the field, I’m paid $13.80/hour. After covering rent, utilities, life insurance, and work supplies, I have $0 left over. Too many home care providers are forced to leave the field because they can’t survive.

It’s time we ended pervasive fraud, abuse and neglect in DC’s home care system. We need a reliable home care system that provides seniors with quality care and taxpayers with assurance that regulators are on the job. We need to pay home care workers a living wage of at least $15, so they can provide quality care without living in poverty. We need to make sure home care workers can come together to fight wage theft and get accurate, clear information about something as simple as re-certification.

Real change will require the Board of Nursing and DC city government offices working together with workers, consumers, health advocates and employers to root out problems for good. The health of our seniors and the livelihoods of thousands of providers are at stake.

Michael Thompson is home care provider in the Washington D.C. area with 10 years of experience.