By Vanessa Ho
Every weekend, Mark Diimmel goes out for dinner and a movie with his sister, who often takes him to get Chinese or Italian food, or maybe burgers and a milkshake.
Diimmel, 64, has schizophrenia and lives in an adult family home in Bremerton, paid for by Medicaid and Social Security.
But the outings have become more difficult. Everything costs more, while his personal-needs allowance—the amount of income Diimmel is allowed to keep for himself—has remained the same, at $62.79 a month.
Allowance rates for Medicaid residents in long-term care in the state have been frozen since 2008—as low as $57.28 for people in nursing homes.
“It’s good for him to be out in the community. He seems to enjoy it,” Connie Dümmel said of her brother. “But $63 doesn’t stretch that far.” She said the allowance also helps him buy shaving cream, deodorant and other personal items.
Beginning this month, allowance rates will grow by 2 percent, or about $1 a month, thanks to a new state law. It’s the first increase in 10 years.
To help Diimmel and an estimated 25,000 other residents in state-financed long-term care, AARP Washington will make raising the allowance a legislative priority in the session beginning Jan. 8.
Other goals include funding for hearing aids and property-tax relief for older low-income homeowners.
To supplement the small raise, AARP Washington is calling for a onetime allowance bump of $20 to $25 a month. That would give more spending power to residents—most of whom receive Supplemental Security Income benefits—for not just personal items but bus passes, classes and programs for a more active life.
“The personal-needs allowance is the only money they have to buy things they like or want. It’s important for their happiness,” said Cathy MacCaul, advocacy director for AARP Washington. She said the estimated state budget impact would be $6 million to $7.5 million annually.
The organization is also working with Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and the legislature to reinstate Medicaid funding for hearing aids, after a related bill failed last year.
Nearly 20 percent of all Americans have some form of hearing loss, including an estimated 650,000 people in the state. The prevalence doubles with every decade starting at 40, with more than half of people in their 70s experiencing hearing loss.
With the average cost of hearing aids at $2,300, the devices are out of reach for many people. The estimated state budget impact to cover a new aid every five years would be $1 million.
“Hearing is critically important for younger adults and seniors,” MacCaul said. “The ability to hear means you can be involved in the community, hold down a job and engage with friends and family.”
AARP Washington is focused on property-tax relief for older residents, too. Homeowners 61 and older with an annual household disposable income (net income after taxes) of $40,000 or less qualify for tax reductions.
The association wants the eligibility to be equivalent to the median income of each county.
MacCaul said many older residents with a small pension and Social Security income don’t qualify for the program but struggle to pay property taxes, especially in the Puget Sound area with rising housing prices.
“Low-income seniors are really feeling the burden,” she said.
Vanessa Ho is a writer living in Seattle.