Advocates are asking lawmakers to consider additional funding.By Meghan Schiller

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — There’s a shortage of home health aides in our area, leaving local families desperate for care.

The lack of caregivers gives parents of disabled children little to no options, and it’s putting senior citizens on long waitlists. KDKA investigator Meghan Schiller introduces us to one local family in the thick of the home health care crisis.

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It’s all about routine for 22-year-old Matthew Kolat. After he hangs up his shirt, he carefully removes his shoes and darts off to the basement. He’s autistic, non-verbal and needs round-the-clock supervision from his mother, Maria.

“He’s with me over 100 some hours a week and to constantly be prompting and redirecting, he’s lost so much from the shutdown,” said Maria Kolat said.

He lost the regular routine of school, graduating at 21 from Sunrise Academy in Monroeville, and he recently lost all the home health aides that care for him Monday through Friday.

“They’re not being lost because they can’t do the job or don’t want to do the job. It’s just not feasible to stay in this field with the pay rate,” Maria Kolat said.

The low pay means high turnover, and now a full-blown worker shortage targeting Pennsylvania families.

“Put simply, we are in a direct care worker, home health aide crisis,” said Teri Henning, CEO of the Pennsylvania Homecare Association.

Henning told KDKA’s Meghan Schiller that this worker shortage leaves parents to fend for themselves.

“It’s not just Maria, sadly, it’s across the state,” said Henning. “I mean, we survey our members all the time on these issues and almost 100% are turning away cases right now. Some of them are reporting denying referrals or refusing referrals up to 40% of what they’re asked, and that means thousands of cases potentially going without care and they’re not just cases, right? They are people.”

Henning said the Medicaid reimbursement rates are too low for the more than 1,000 agencies in our state to recruit and retain competent caregivers.

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“The rates range from about $18 an hour to $20 an hour depending upon where you’re providing services and that rate is expected to pay for everything,” said Henning. “The wage paid to the worker, employers’ costs and tax obligations relating to those wages, overtime, PPE, transportation training, you can see that it wouldn’t stretch very far.”

Henning said the take-home pay for the at-home aides comes to about $10 to $11 an hour.

“This is really demanding work and it’s not for everyone. So, you’re already starting with a smaller pool of people who are called to do the work,” Henning said. “And now, you know, just in today’s marketplace when you can go down the street and do a lot simpler, easier, less demanding job for $15, $18, $20 an hour. There’s no contest.”

Parents like Maria Kolat quit their jobs, saying goodbye to the help they desperately need.

“We had a wonderful aide Lisa who was working with us and she’s a sweetheart and we loved her, and she loved Matt,” said Kolat. “It broke her heart to have to leave, but she had to because she has a family, and she was going to be making two times the amount.”

Henning’s hoping a $3 increase to the Medicaid reimbursement will help.

“We need to find the funding and we need the support at budget time,” said Henning.

That’s why she’s thankful the Kolat family is sharing their story, hoping change will come if people know about the problem affecting so many local families.

Henning is asking the Legislature to consider the additional funding and said she expects some funds from the American Rescue Plan.

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It does provide a 10 percentage point increase in states’ federal Medicaid funding — totaling nearly $13 billion. The money can be used to help eligible agencies train new workers and reduce waiting lists, meaning families like the Kolats will hopefully get the help they need again.

Meghan Schiller