How new bipartisan legislation could affect caregiver benefits

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The Recognize, Assist, Include, Support and Engage Family Caregivers Act is on its way to President Donald Trump’s desk, where the bipartisan legislation could affect employers of more than 40 million Americans.

The bill, which Congress passed on Jan. 9, mandates that the Department of Health and Human Services work with federal agencies and that an HHS-created advisory council create a strategy over an 18-month period to support informal caregivers.

The RAISE Family Caregivers Act calls for employer representation on the advisory council, where stakeholders can formulate the strategy to better support family caregivers, says Rhonda Richards, senior legislative representative on AARP’s federal health and family team.

“These employees are contributing to the company and they are juggling responsibilities at home and in the office and making some adjustments,” she says. “Employers being aware of the challenges and taking steps to support their employees can help employees feel more supported in their workplace and can increase productivity.”

The bill defines family caregiver as “an adult family member or other individual who has a significant relationship with, and who provides a broad range of assistance to, an individual with a chronic or other health condition, disability, or functional limitation.”

The RAISE Family Caregivers Act’s language is broader than that of caregiving policies in states like New York and Hawaii — the latter gives eligible working caregivers a $70 daily stipend — to assist as many Americans facing caregiving challenges.

However, the bill’s broad language is at odds with what most employee benefit plans define as a “dependent,” says L. Stephen Bowers, an employee benefits attorney with law firm Cozen O’Connor.

“It’s something that would drive policy more than regulation,” he says, noting that the HHS secretary could not mandate anything the advisory council identifies as a best practice.

See also: Elder care benefits meet a growing need at BofA

If the bill is signed into law by President Trump, employers can either voluntarily advance their caregiving benefits or wait for local, state and federal laws to mandate changes like paid family leave.

In 2017, 77% of employers offered an employee assistance program and 57% of employers offered flexible scheduling — two major benefits for caregivers, according to SHRM’s 2017 employee benefits report.

Likewise, about one in five employers offered family leave above state or federal FMLA levels in 2017; about one in 10 employers offered elder care above state or federal FMLA levels, according to the SHRM report.

Despite those few employers that offer enhanced or paid leave, about half of workers polled by research nonprofit Transamerica Institute do not understand how FMLA leave works, says Hector De La Torre, executive director of the Transamerica Center for Health Studies.

“Most employees are not aware of what their employers offer,” he says. “There’s a lot of information that’s not getting out there.”

De La Torre says he sees the RAISE Family Caregivers Act as a way to raise awareness about the burdens placed on caregivers, many of whom are employed and still put in a median of 50 hours per month providing care, according to a September 2017 Transamerica Institute survey that polled 3,074 U.S. caregivers.

“It goes underreported and underappreciated that there’s this many Americans” with caregiving duties, he says. The bill “is really the first step in moving toward potential policies that can help caregivers.”

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