No Allowance

Colorado nursing-home residents haven't had a cost-of-living raise in ten years.

Freddy Lipton is crusading for $16 a month.
The 56-year-old Lipton suffers from colon cancer, but he hasn't let that stop him from waging a tireless campaign on behalf of Colorado nursing-home residents. Medicaid recipients living in nursing homes receive a personal-needs allowance of $34 a month, which Lipton hopes to raise to $50. The allowance hasn't been raised in the past decade, even though it's the only money many people in nursing homes have to buy clothes, eat out or make long-distance phone calls.

For the past two years, Lipton has lived in a Cripple Creek nursing home. While waging his own battle against the cancer that has now spread to his liver, he has still managed to pursue a letter-and-petition campaign that has reached more than 200 nursing homes in Colorado. Hundreds of nursing-home residents around the state have signed the petitions, and Lipton vows that Colorado's legislators will soon be getting an earful from people they've largely ignored.

"When we get through with the politicians, they're going to wish we went down with the Titanic," says Lipton.

Most residents of nursing homes quickly use up their personal savings after moving into a home; once their savings are depleted, they qualify for Medicaid, which picks up their expenses. That money pays the nursing home to put a roof over their heads and provide them with meals, but it doesn't cover personal expenses. The $34-per-month personal-needs allowance must cover the costs of new clothing, haircuts, stamps and other necessities. Colorado hasn't increased the amount since 1988, and Lipton says residents like him are paying the price.

"I've been wearing the same shoes for two years, and the heels are worn down," Lipton says.

Lipton began his campaign a year ago. He's been working with Ted Borden, social services director at the Cripple Creek Rehab & Wellness Center, where Lipton lives. Borden helped Lipton put together the letters and petitions, and he's accompanied the Army veteran and former truck driver to speaking engagements at two other nursing homes.

"We started getting responses from homes, and before I knew it, I was being invited to speak," says Lipton.

Borden says he had never heard of the personal-needs allowance before coming to work in a nursing home, but he now realizes how important it is to the residents.

"The allowance hasn't kept up with inflation," says Borden. "We have a lot of people who aren't from Colorado and want to make long-distance calls."

The issue has also come to the attention of others who work with nursing-home residents.

"Our concern is that it impacts on residents' rights and dignity," says Jan Meyers, coordinator for the office of the state ombudsman for long-term care. "You have a right to communicate with people outside the facility, but it's hard to do that if your relatives all live out of state and you can't pay for a long-distance call. It's a real struggle for the residents to try and manage on this."

Meyers also says some nursing-home clients need to order special shoes that can cost hundreds of dollars and will eat up their personal-needs allowance for months.

Lipton is surprised the state has gone so long without hiking the allowance, and he suspects the political invisibility of nursing-home residents has a lot to do with it.

"I don't understand why somebody hasn't done something about this a lot sooner," he says. "People don't know what it's like to live in a nursing home. As long as I've been here, I've never seen a politician walk through the doors. They don't listen to us."

While visiting a Greeley nursing home, Lipton did encounter Representative Dave Owen, a Weld County Republican who sits on the legislature's powerful Joint Budget Committee, which would make a decision on whether to raise the allowance. He says Owen was unsympathetic to his campaign.

Owen doesn't dispute that characterization. He says Colorado's $34-a-month allowance is right at the national average if you exclude Alaska, which has a high cost of living.

"Their proposal would cost us $2 million per year," says Owen. "I would feel a little different if we were at the bottom of the scale."

Many nursing-home residents receive help paying for personal expenses from their families, says Owen, who adds that he's never heard any concerns about the issue from nursing-home administrators or state agencies.

"It's not been brought to our attention as a problem," says Owen. "It's never appeared on anybody's wish list. This all started with one individual."

Lipton says he'll gladly accept the role of troublemaker if it helps get the issue before the public.

"The only thing these politicians are interested in is the bottom line," he says. "They forget we pay taxes and are also voters."

As for the legislature, Lipton says he'd be happy to testify before the Joint Budget Committee, under one condition: "They've got to pay for my lunch," he says with a laugh.

But Lipton also feels an urgency to get the issue settled soon.
"I hope there's something done about this before I die," he says. "If they don't do anything, I hope somebody else will carry the torch."

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