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Lawmakers abandon our old, ill and poor

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 10, 2003


It's hard to believe that the government could be so casual, so callous.

But it's true: Florida just might let the old and the sick die, as many as 26,000 of them.

In just a few weeks, cuts in what's called the Medically Needy program take effect. The program helps pay for the bills of poor people who are dealing with transplants or catastrophic illnesses, or facing drug bills that outstrip their monthly Social Security or disability checks.

Come May 1, people who have gotten help through this program will be expected to spend all but $450 of their monthly income on their medical bills before the state will shell out a dime.

You try living on $450 a month.

For Rose Ehrlich, a 79-year-old widow in Lutz, this will mean deciding between paying her rent or buying drugs to treat problems with her heart, her back, her blood pressure, her legs. Her Social Security check is less than $800. Her drugs cost $1,100 a month.

For Susie Owens, a 51-year-old diabetic from Safety Harbor, the choice will be just as grim. She needs a kidney transplant. She won't be able to get it if she can't afford the drugs required to keep her from rejecting the organ.

And this is what some Republicans call living within our means.

This change has been a year in coming. The Legislature adopted it last year but, when a row erupted, put off the date the law would take effect until this year.

Such brave men and women those Republicans are.

"Bush wants me dead," said a Clearwater man who needs $2,000 a month in drugs to keep his transplanted liver functioning.

He didn't want his name used because he doesn't want his neighbors knowing he's nearly broke. He wants to keep what dignity he has left, as he and his wife try to manage on $1,300 a month, and prepare to choose between buying medicine and making their mortgage.

What makes this matter particularly cruel is that, even though the law was changed last year, the 26,000 people affected learned of the change only a few days ago. They got a letter in the mail.

The night his letter arrived, the Clearwater man went to bed a wreck. "Wouldn't it be the best thing," he told his wife, "if we died in our sleep and didn't have to worry about this in the morning?"

You could ask yourself how this happens, how presumably intelligent and caring people in Tallahassee could inflict such pain on their constituents.

Could it be they're just plain ignorant of any reality beyond that of people who drive SUVs and have 401(k)s and insurance plans?

People like Rose Ehrlich have none of that. "What do the poor people who don't have any more, what are we supposed to do?" she asked.

Susie Owens was darker, more Darwinian. "It almost feels that they're going along with the survival of the fittest," she said.

I would like to report that the Legislature and the governor will, in a flash of decency, restore the Medically Needy program. I talked to a Tallahassee lobbyist, Lyn Bodiford. She was not reassuring. The program, which costs about $400-million a year, is a big pot of money, very tempting to take from. The cuts, it is estimated, will save $65-million a year.

I tell you about Rose Ehrlich, Susie Owens and the man from Clearwater to put a face on the process that passes for governing in Tallahassee.

The budget will be balanced.

The campaign rhetoric will be lived up to.

And the real, desperate needs of people legislators claim to represent will go ignored.

You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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