Baldwin, Ernst tout caregiver tax break

Source: Dubuque Telegraph Herald

By Ben Jacobson

A pair of U.S. senators from the tri-state area support legislation that would create a tax credit to those who care for loved ones at home.

Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, helped introduce the Credit for Caring Act, through which caregivers could receive up to $3,000 annually in non-refundable tax credits. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., also endorsed the bill, which has received wide bipartisan support.

“This is something that would recognize their heroic work and make it just a bit easier in terms of balancing their budgets,” Baldwin said. “It’s a step in the right direction and, … in my mind, the next natural effort to support family caregivers.”

‘STAGGERING’ CONTRIBUTION

Ernst, along with U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; introduced the bill earlier this month. A companion bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in March.

The tax credits would be applied to caregiving expenses greater than $2,000. Applicants would be subject to income requirements and other eligibility criteria.

According to the American Association of Retired Persons, about 40 million caregivers nationwide provide an average of 18 hours of critical support to loved ones each week.

“Really, the unpaid contributions that those family caregivers give, when we value that, it’s roughly $3.8 billion (in Iowa),” Ernst said. “That’s a huge economic impact, and that’s unpaid.”

In Wisconsin, more than 570,000 people provided about $7 billion worth of unpaid care each year.

“In other words, we’re getting the free labor of loved ones to take care of their ailing relatives, and if you added up all those hours, uncompensated hours, it would literally surpass the amount we spend on Medicare each year,” Baldwin said. “That’s just staggering.”

AN UNREALIZED NEED

It’s not uncommon for Lou Stockdale to encounter caregivers who don’t understand the extent of their contributions. Many don’t even realize the support they provide, often at great personal and financial cost, elevates them to that status.

“I think the biggest thing we often see is that the caregiver does not recognize that they have to take time out for themselves,” said Stockdale, of the Northeast Iowa Agency on Aging. “What I’ve noticed in just the last probably six months is some of our caregivers have passed before the loved ones they’re caring for because it is so stressful.”

Stockdale’s organization, which includes Dubuque’s Scenic Valley Agency on Aging, provides services and support to help people stay at home as long as they are able. She said caregivers often sacrifice social lives and even careers to support loved ones with their physical needs.

It’s a role Baldwin knows well.

Baldwin was raised by her maternal grandmother. And when her grandmother’s health began to fail, the roles were reversed.

Supporting caregivers has been a “huge priority” for Baldwin, who last year introduced the Recognize, Assist, Include, Support and Engage Family Caregivers Act. The bill would require the formation of a national strategy that would support training, education and respite for family caregivers.

The act is being considered in the U.S. House.

“To me, this Credit for Caring Act is a natural next step that needs to be taken if we are going to be truly comprehensive with our efforts,” Baldwin said.

Stockdale agreed.

“I always say, something’s better than nothing,” she said.

BIPARTISAN SUPPORT

The declining health that accompanies advancing age can lead to hard decisions for families, Ernst said. Most people want to remain at home as long as possible, and placement in a long-term care facility can be financially prohibitive.

“When my grandfather had to go to a nursing home, the cost to stay was roughly $5,000 a month,” Ernst said. “That’s really tough. That’s really hard.”

The act’s sponsors spent a significant amount of time gathering input from outside groups. Once the bill was ready to move forward, supporters emerged on both sides of the aisle.

Ernst said some have been surprised at her partnership with Warren, an outspoken progressive.

“This is something we can agree on,” Ernst said. “I’m really glad to have her on my bill.”