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Old and in the way

Senior welfare sucks taxpayers dry and leaves the elderly out to die

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Word on Capitol Hill is that the our representatives, in their infinite sense of fiduciary wisdom, are preparing to take Medicaid - our national medical welfare system, equivalent to MediCal in California - to the "chopping block."

But before they start slashing health benefits for the indigent to save money for our more urgent needs in the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley, perhaps they should take a closer look at how this penurious agency spends its hard-earned money.

You don't have to look far to see how MediCal could save thousands upon thousands of dollars each month, while providing better services to the needy. I only have to look at my 91-year-old grandmother. Living in an assisted living facility for several years, with no other income besides her $1,000 a month in Social Security, her financial resources were quickly reduced to nothing.

With each passing month, Grandma's balance sunk lower and lower, and as her nest egg dwindled, it was left to me to step in and plan her future. That's when I was introduced to the wonderful world of state-sponsored MediCal.

Loath to squander precious tax dollars, MediCal waits until you're flat broke before they'll come to your aid. To be exact, you can have no more than $2,000 in assets in order to qualify.

Fair enough, I suppose. MediCal was created to assist those with the greatest need; we don't want people spending public welfare money before they've spent their own. So Granny just kept on spending.

An assisted living home in Orange County had been my Grandma's home for the past five years, and she'd grown quite comfortable there. She had a private room with her own bathroom, meals were prepared (in strict accordance with her post-colostomy diet), and professional staff was always available in the event of an emergency.

For Grandma's simple needs and her family's peace of mind, she was paying about $3,500 a month for these accommodations. Not a bargain, but by no means an extraordinary price for assisted living care and services. It was, however, pricey enough to deplete her modest life savings and the proceeds from the sale of her double-wide mobile home.

We were already planning to relocate Granny from OC to SLO County to be closer to her, and we were willing to find a cheaper home for her in the process. We were even prepared, though reluctant, to place her in a shared room to reduce her expenses.

I visited at least a dozen retirement homes, varying in size, cost, and level of care. I spent four weeks attending seminars offered by the SLO County Long Term Care Ombudsman's office - an invaluable resource. And that's about the time my social worker explained to me that MediCal - for which Grandma was just months away from qualifying - would not pay for an assisted living facility.

As several civil servants told me, an assisted living residence is something of a luxury for the elderly who are simply unwilling to do their own cooking and cleaning. True enough, if you're not already on the dole, three grand a month probably sounds like a lot of money.

If Granny is truly so desperate for care, the reasoning goes, then she belongs in a Skilled Nursing Facility. These are the hospital-like institutions where the elderly are warehoused, the halls smell of urine, and the monthly bill runs upwards of $5,000-$6,000.

And that's the only way she could qualify for state aid. After spending all her own money, she had to move into a facility that cost almost twice as much - an additional $2,000 a month.

Countless hours on the phone confirmed this inane policy of the state welfare system, and no one could suggest a reasonable alternative. For the most part, I was treated like an ignoramus for even questioning the system. Mostly, I was told, in not so many words, to be grateful - my Grandma would be gone soon, and then I could forget about the whole mess. (Although the truth is, even at 91, she doesn't have a single serious medical malady.)

So now my Grandma's given up her private room and her own furniture. She shares a room with a deaf woman and sleeps in a hospital bed. Instead of her cozy recliner, she sits on the bed all day with her back hunched over. Nursing staff is on duty around the clock, and demented clients wander the halls, singing, screaming, talking to their teddy bears, and rummaging through my Grandma's closet.

It's not what you would call a cheerful environment. But what right do I have to complain? MediCal foots the bill, and Granny's financial troubles are behind her.

In fact, Grandma is left with exactly $35 a month in spending money, and the remaining $980-some-odd of her Social Security check goes to her nursing home. The monthly balance of about $4,000 is covered by MediCal; in other words, public tax money.

And who benefits? Not my Grandma; she's miserable. Not me; I have to visit the institution regularly and ask the administrators why she isn't getting the right food, why money's being stolen from her purse. The taxpayers? No, they could save about $3,000 a month if Grandma were living among happier, healthier people in an assisted living home.

That leaves the nursing home. They benefit to the tune of about $5,000 a month, per person. Have I mentioned "I must be in the wrong business?" Well, I must.

Wonder why elderly suicide is on the rise? Me neither. Worried about politicians messing with Social Security? You better.

Yes, it's time to send MediCal to the chopping block. Stop the reckless spending.

Arts Editor Jeff Hornaday frowns on welfare fraud, but send your hypothetical suggestions to jhornaday@newtimesslo.com.

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