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WNBC-TV. Following is a transcript of the program:

Spousal Refusal

PART ONE:
Chuck:
The City looks for payback. It is suing many senior citizens for most of their retirement savings.

Sue:
Hundreds of seniors are being sued for a big chunk of their retirement savings.

Chuck:
It’s part of the city’s stepped up effort to recover Medicaid dollars spent on nursing home care. It is causing some seniors a lot of anxiety.

Sue:
Government affairs reporter Melissa Russo is here with a report you’ll see only on newschannel four.

Melissa:
These are seniors who’ve saved a couple hundred thousand dollars for retirement - - and suddenly their husband or wife needs to go into a nursing home. That can wipe out those savings in no time. Since Medicare usually doesn’t cover that - - These seniors found a legal way to get on Medicaid, which does. The problem is Medicaid is for the poor, these seniors aren’t poor, but they’re saying they will be soon if the City gets its way.

Florence Abromowitz tries hard to keep her husband’s spirit up during her visit to his nursing home. In 1998 Heim’s Alzheimer Disease became unmanageable.

Mrs. Abromowitz:
I had no choice, the house was in danger. I couldn’t get him in and out of the tub.

Melissa:
What Abromowitz did not realize was that the burden of her husband’s care would become even greater after that decision.

Mrs. Abromowitz:
And my husband use to say, don’t worry, I’ll be taken care of, god will take care of me. It’s not happening that way.

Melissa:
Abromowitz says, with her life savings of a little more than one hundred thousand dollars, there was no way that she could have afforded it to pay for her husband’s nursing care. Which can cost that much in just a year. So she did what many middle class spouses in her situation have done for years in New York State with the advice of their attorneys. She signed this letter to the City refusing to pay for Heim’s care.

Mrs. Abromowitz:
“Please consider this letter my Spousal Refusal for the purposes of Medicaid eligibility.”

Melissa:
It is a completely legal maneuver that has helped ill spouses qualify for Medicaid, while preserving the healthy spouse’s retirement savings. But even though [the City] found Mr. Abromowitz eligible for Medicaid, they’re now suing Mrs. Abromowitz for the money they’ve spent so far.

Mrs. Abromowitz:
I have been totally devastated. I worked all my life as a school teacher, I’m not rich [enough to do the things we wanted to do]. Then all of a sudden to be hit with a bill for $58,000. If I pay that money, I will be destitute. I’ll have no savings, except for IRAs which for some reason are untouchable at this point in time. And I may consider having to go on public assistance.

Jay Sangerman:
It’s not the way that our society is going to treat the elderly.

Melissa:
Attorney Jay Sangerman represents Abromowitz and many other seniors now targeted by New York City lawsuits seeking repayment of Medicaid dollars. 90 year old widow, Elizabeth Fishman is another.

Jay Sangerman:
And it says here that effective May 27, 1993, that Sam would be eligible for Medicaid.

Melissa:
The City is now suing Mrs. Fishman for $250,000 for 4 years of her late husband’s nursing care. She says it was a huge shock.

Mrs. Fishman:
Never mentioned, it’s a nightmare, I’m sleepless, I wake up with it.

Jay Sangerman:
Perhaps she could have put him in a less expensive nursing home. Perhaps she could have taken him to Florida. And she and her husband, Sam, have lived in Florida, were the cost of nursing homes is about $3,000 a month rather than $12,000 a month.

Melissa:
Under federal law, state and counties can choose to require healthy spouse’s to pay for their sick spouse’s nursing care. Until they are left with about $80,000 in savings and about $2,000 a month in income.

Mrs. Bloom:
It was just a bill I had to pay, a small bill, but this is a big amount, and I think about it a lot.

Melissa:
73 year old Ada Bloom was slapped with a $144,000 lawsuit after her husband, Joseph, died. Joseph spent the last 3 years of his life with Parkinson’s Disease on Medicaid in this Queens Nursing Home. During 48 years of marriage, Joseph, a mailman, and Ada, a retired receptionist, scrimped and saved for their retirement. Ada said she watched her mother grow old [and] poor and wanted to avoid the same fate.

Mrs. Bloom:
It’s something I’m aware of. I know all about being poor.

Melissa:
Another reason why Ada Bloom worked so hard to save - - she was born with just one arm and needs extra help sometimes. She never wanted to be dependent.

Mrs. Bloom:
There are times I can’t do things that I would like to do and I have to hire somebody to do it for me.

Bernard Krooks:
It is just going to make the inevitable happen that sooner. She is going to need to go on Medicaid herself, and then as a society what have we accomplished

Melissa:
A major part of the problem is that Medicare doesn’t pay for long term nursing care for illnesses like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and many of these couples did not invest in long-term care insurance.

Bernard Krooks:
Rich people can afford to pay for it out of their pocket and poor people qualify for Medicaid. And the middle class unfortunately are forced to turn to this Spousal Refusal technique in order to access the health care that they need.

Melissa:
We called City welfare commissioner, Jason Turner, for the past six days to request a sit down interview on the City lawsuits. We were only able to get this response from Turner at a press conference this morning where he was promoting the city’s welfare policies.
 

Turner:
We don’t have universal socialized medicine in this country so we expect individuals to either provide for themselves through insurance, or when they can’t, to use their own resources until such a time that they reach an income threshold. So what you’re referring to is a situation where people did have money, the family did have money, but they’re asking the City to step in and make payments on their behalf.

Melissa:
And despite Mayor Giuliani’s curiosity about our story:

Giuliani:
I’m not aware of that policy involving a spouse.
 

Melissa:
And assurances from Turner, that he would sit down with us.

Turner:
Okay, I’ll be sure to give you an interview.

Melissa:
He never did. Now Turner’s office did fax a statement tonight saying the Federal government requires the city to collect a co-payment when the couple’s assets are over the Medicaid threshold, which was recently raised. The statement says, HRA takes all steps to negotiate a reasonable state settlement and is sensitive to any hardship issues resulting from these payments. To date, 75% of these families voluntarily accept the co-pay arrangement. But elder lawyers say, that’s because many seniors are too frail to fight back.

PART TWO:

Michelle:
City Hall has been suing seniors for major portions of their retirement savings to repay Medicaid.

Chuck:
Well now it appears we have Giuliani backing away from this aggressive policy. Government Affairs Reporter, Melissa Russo, first broke this story and she joins us with more on, “Second Thoughts of City Hall.”

Melissa:
That’s right Chuck and Michelle, senior citizens tonight are hoping that what Rudy Giuliani said this afternoon will mean that they won’t have to give up most of their life savings to pay for their spouse’s nursing home care. It’s a situation that very troubled and many seniors could find themselves in if their spouse happens to come down with one of the chronic illnesses for which Medicare won’t cover a nursing home stay.

Mrs. Fishman:
This box is all your documents [Mrs. Fishman showing a file box full of legal documents to her attorney, Jay Sangerman].

Melissa:
Documents of what has been a 3 year legal nightmare for 91 year old Elizabeth Fishman. Just two weeks after her husband, Sam, died in 1997, the Giuliani administration sued her for $250,000, demanding that she pay back the City for the Medicaid money they spent on Sam’s 4 years in a nursing home. Medicare would not cover Sam’s costly nursing stay and to protect her precious retirement savings, Mrs. Fishman, like thousands of other middle class seniors, used a legal loop hole of sorts to qualify her husband for Medicaid, which is technically a health benefit for the poor. Fishman is not poor, but if she has to pay $250,000, she says she will be.

Mrs. Fishman:
I dream about this horrible thing for so long, but what about my health and I wake up in the morning and this is what I think of, this hurtful thing.
 

Melissa:
Federal and State laws give local counties the right to go after all but $80,000 of a healthy spouse’s assets, but not their home if they own one. Other counties like Westchester have opted not to sue in most cases. But New York City’s more aggressive policy has many seniors here wondering what they’ll live on if they’re lucky to live a long time. When we first reported this story, the City’s Human Resources Commissioner, Jason Turner, defended the lawsuits saying, the government should not pay for someone’s health care if their spouse has money.

Turner:
We don’t have universal socialized medicine in this country.

Melissa:
At the time, Mayor Giuliani was unfamiliar with this subject.

Giuliani:
I’m not aware of that policy, where it’s involving a spouse.

Melissa:
Just yesterday, Giuliani officials defended the lawsuits at a contentious council hearing. But tonight, despite his own administration’s practice of suing seniors for most of their assets, the mayor said;

Giuliani:
[The] part that would concern me is trying to take somebody’s assets.

Melissa:
Instead he said the city should ask for a more reasonable payment.

Giuliani:
People should be required to make some contribution in the support of their spouse, but they shouldn’t be bankrupted by it, they shouldn’t have their quality of life destroyed as a result of it. So we’re going to make sure that it’s adjusted in the right way.

Melissa:
Welcome words to Fishman and her lawyer.

Mrs. Fishman:
If I had a chance, I would give him a big kiss.

Jay Sangerman:
Certainly I’m surprised by it, I’m delighted by it. Perhaps it is your first broadcast on this issue that had made the mayor aware.

Melissa:
Bernard Krooks chairs the Elder Law Section of the New York State Bar.

Bernard Krooks:
Perhaps he’s educated himself more on what has been going [on] under his own watch and I’m glad that he’s finally recognized that it’s improper and bad social policy.

Melissa:
And just today, city controller Allen Hevasy began a review to see if the lawsuits might be costing the city more than they are bringing in.

Hevasy:
Not only am I angered over the cruelty of this policy, but I’m very suspicious that we might be losing money.

Melissa:
Now Mayor Giuliani says, he’s going to ask for a waiver from the federal government. He says the law allows people to hold unto their homes while getting Medicaid, seniors who don’t own real estate, like many New York City residents, should be able to keep their assets. If Giuliani’s proposal is approved by the feds, seniors would have to contribute just a 1/4 of any income over $2,000 a month. But at this point, Chuck and Michelle, there is no guarantee that that’s going to happen.

We concentrate in the f
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    2.  Jay J. Sangerman’s law practice is cited in  a major federal court case pertaining to the rights of the disabled.  Click here to review the case.

Please See: Index for Jay J. Sangerman, PLLC

 

Hebrew Home for Aged at Riverdale, Jewish Home & Hospital, Jewish Home and Hospital, New York State Bar Association, Alzheimer's Association, NSSTA, National Structured Settlement Trade Association, Elder Law, National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, NAELA