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Some suffer in silence as others vote in ignorance

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2003


I thought government worked this way:

If your elected officials did something you didn't like, you could call or write them to object and try to change their minds.

Silly me.

I have it in writing. The Department of Children and Families is telling its caseworkers, in a short memo circulated last week, not to tell their unhappy clients to contact Gov. Bush or the Legislature.

The memo was sent out because DCF knew what was coming: The agency was about to hear from thousands of poor, ill and elderly people who will soon lose much of their benefits through the state's Medically Needy program. It helps pay the bills of those dealing with transplants or catastrophic illnesses, or facing drug bills bigger than their government checks.

Cuts in the program mean that recipients will have to spend all but $450 of their monthly income before the state will pay their bills. People were only told of this cut in the past week. But the cuts take effect May 1, giving the people affected little time to make other arrangements, if any are possible, to get their bills covered.

I talked to a Pinellas woman, Linda Jones. She suffers from bipolar disorder. Her illness is so severe she sometimes hears voices telling her to hurt herself.

Jones gets $755 a month in disability payments, and her drugs cost $900 a month. She takes several drugs, but finding the right combination has been a long process of trial and error. Changing any of them could throw off her emotional balance and land her in the hospital. She thinks she might be able to find one of her drugs for free through a pharmaceutical company program for the needy, but she doesn't know about the other drugs and how she could find them. "I don't know what that will do to my condition," Jones said.

"This is just about pushing me over the edge," said Joann Markey, a St. Petersburg woman disabled with liver problems, fibromyalgia and chronic pain. "I'm trying to figure out what (medicines) I can cut and still live.

"What do they want me to do? Sell my house?"

This is what we get from Speaker Johnnie Byrd's so-called family friendly budget. It is only for families where nothing goes wrong.

Ten days ago, House Democrats tried to restore full funding to the Medically Needy program. The effort failed on a straight party line vote. The Republicans, to a person, voted it down.

I don't presume to understand this process. The Republicans had a chance to do the right thing right then, but they put it off.

Nevertheless, some Republicans have assured me the Medically Needy program will come up for consideration when the House and Senate meet later this month in what's called the conference committee and try to work out a budget they can both agree on.

There are a few problems with this. The leaders of the House and Senate are hardly talking to one another. The House wants a budget with no new taxes, while the Senate wants some additional revenue but from some source they have failed to identify. It looks as though the Medically Needy program will survive only if some unidentified something else is deeply cut.

The Medically Needy recipients are ignoring the directive from the Department of Children and Families. They are writing and complaining. Ed Homan, a freshman Republican representative from Tampa, said he has a 3-inch high stack of letters on his desk.

Homan said the program was cut without lawmakers understanding the number of people involved or the size of the need. Homan understands because he is a doctor, an orthopedic surgeon. "I would put it at the top priority," he said.

This is the part that gets me: Lawmakers vote on laws they don't comprehend, without a clue about the damage they may be doing to lives along the way. And we call this governing.

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

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