- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 23, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — If it weren’t for his daily visits from Linda Davis, Donald Barnes, 64, figures he’d end up in a nursing home.

“She fixes me food,” Mr. Barnes said. “She makes sure I take my medicine like I’m supposed to. She makes sure I’m bathed and have clean clothes to put on. If I didn’t have her, I’d just be a lost soul.”

The care Miss Davis provides to Mr. Barnes, who had a stroke two years ago, is invaluable to him, allowing him to live in his own apartment.

The value the state puts on her services is a lot less: about $5 an hour, Miss Davis said.

She is one of about 3,000 personal care providers the state contracts with to help take care of about 5,000 Marylanders with disabilities. The majority have not had a pay increase from the state since 1986. They get no health care benefits, no sick days, no retirement. And the most they get paid in a day is $50.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, has offered a 10 percent increase in payments in his budget for next year, but the home-care workers say that isn’t enough.

Miss Davis and several other home-care workers who came to Annapolis recently to press their case for more money said even with the increases proposed by the governor, their income would still fall below the federal poverty level, now $12,830 a year for a family of two.

“I’ve been working 23 years now. I’ve seen the money go up a couple of dollars,” said Theresa Bates-Atugah, who takes care of two clients in Baltimore.

The money she earns, $5 to $6 an hour, is never enough, she said. “I put my bills in the hat and wonder which ones I can pay.”

Personal care assistants are not paid by the hour but receive a daily rate based on the level of services provided — $10 per visit for those requiring the least help, $20 for those needing an intermediate level of care and $50 a day for full-time, live-in care.

Except for live-in workers, most visit their clients five days a week.

The state estimates about an hour is needed for the lower level of care (Level 1) and two hours for intermediate care (Level 2). But services can include shopping and taking clients to see doctors, and several aides said it takes about twice the amount of time estimated by the state, including travel between clients, to take care of their needs.

Two unions — the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — are trying to organize personal care assistants and are waging lobbying campaigns to get more money for them.

Mark Leeds, who oversees the program for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said that when the state began paying for home-care in 1981, it was intended as a stipend — a little money to repay neighbors, friends and relatives who helped disabled people on a voluntary basis. Now, most workers in the Medical Assistance Personal Care Program contract with local health agencies to serve two or three clients, and the money they receive from the state is their primary source of income.

Mr. Ehrlich’s budget includes about $2 million to increase the $10 rate to $11 and the $20 rate to $22. In addition, he is proposing a new rate of pay of $30 for about 5 percent of Level 2 clients with the greatest needs, Mr. Leeds said.

“We certainly recognize the value of the services these individuals perform,” Mr. Leeds said. “We understand that the payment has been inadequate.”

One bill awaiting action in a House committee would increase payments by $4 per client instead of the raises proposed by Mr. Ehrlich. With less than two weeks left in the 2005 legislative session, personal care assistants will probably have to settle for the pay increase offered by the governor, but they say they will be back next year if necessary.

When Audra White got involved a year and a half ago in a union-led campaign for higher pay, she said state officials and legislators knew little about what she and her colleagues do and how much they get paid. “They know now because we won’t stop,” she said.

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