Updated

Woman wins red tape fight

By BRETT NAUMAN

Eagle Staff Writer

SHIRO — On a nightstand next to Lowrean Douglas’ bed are two pill bottles halfway filled with medication to treat her high blood pressure.

It’s medicine that keeps her alive.

In the same bedroom not far from a spot where the floor has rotted through is a wooden chest that contains Douglas’ financial papers: the deed to her house, electric bills, receipts and the paperwork she receives each month from Social Security.

On top of the stack is a final notice Douglas, 91, received in June warning that her Supplemental Security Income (SSI) would be cut off this month if she didn’t provide the Social Security Administration office in Bryan with proof of life and burial insurance.

The urgency of the situation never registered with Douglas, according to Strathwell Johnson, a friend who has received her mail and helped manage her affairs for the last 15 years.

SSI is a federal program that gives supplemental income to the aged, blind and disabled who have little or no income. Douglas gets $28 per month from the program. But more importantly, by qualifying for that aid, she’s eligible for Medicaid benefits.

So losing SSI meant losing Medicaid. And, losing Medicaid, among other things, meant losing the prescription drug coverage with Medicaid that allows Douglas to have those two pill bottles on her nightstand refilled.

The medicine is expensive, Johnson said. So expensive that the $333 Social Security payment and $208 veteran’s pension check Douglas receives each month barely cover the refills, Johnson said.

So last month Johnson took to the task of providing Douglas’ life insurance policy number to the Social Security officials. But after several unsuccessful phone conversations with Douglas’ case worker and a 35-mile trip to Bryan last month in which Johnson says he delivered the policy number into the hands of the case worker, Douglas’ SSI income and Medicaid coverage were cut off.

The red tape

That means for the last 23 days Douglas has gone without the Medicaid coverage that allows her to see her doctors as she continues to use her supply of blood pressure medicine. She’s also had to do without the home attendant covered by the program who would come by her Shiro home three hours each day to help cook and clean.

Johnson said Douglas’ case was resolved last week less than 24 hours after The Eagle made several phone calls to Elder Aid and Bryan’s Social Security Administration office. Although her SSI and Medicaid benefits soon will be reinstated, Douglas’ problems point out the flaws in how senior citizens collect Social Security benefits today.

“When people get in the state she’s in, someone should have compassion enough to help her,” said Johnson, a member of the Brazos Valley Council of Governments’ Area Agency on Aging advisory committee. “It’s ridiculous. I’m referring to the fact that a 91-year-old woman living alone can’t take care of her business properly, and they cut off her main medical supply. My point here is to make a statement, because I’m sure she is not the only one this is being done to.”

Social Security officials are working to restore Douglas to SSI and Medicaid, according to Sara Loeppert, director of Elder Aid, a nonprofit organization. The life insurance policy number Douglas was asked to provide was part of her annual review to make sure she was still eligible for SSI benefits, Loeppert said.

Privacy laws keep Social Security officials from commenting on Douglas’ case and Johnson’s interaction with her case worker, said Cindy Knoblock, manager of the Social Security Administration office in Bryan. However, the case workers have a responsibility to the taxpayers to follow the rules that prompted those benefits to be cut, Knoblock said.

“We’re very compassionate with the elderly,” Knoblock said. “But you have to understand we can’t just pay somebody because of the sympathy factor. We’re here for the taxpayers, too. It’s a double-edged sword.”

The office has 18 employees to deal with more than 4,000 SSI cases and nearly 30,000 Social Security cases in the Brazos Valley, Knoblock said. Complaints are numerous, and the phones never quit ringing, she said.

Rules are rules

The Department of Human Services has been contacted so Douglas can again receive the daily visits from the home attendant, Loeppert said. It’s unfair to blame Social Security for the situation because employees there had no choice but to cut Douglas off when she failed to provide her life insurance policy number, Loeppert said.

“The thing that bothers me is Social Security and the Department of Human Services are made out to be the bad guys, and they’re only following federal guidelines,” Loeppert said. “If they didn’t follow those rules, they’d be breaking the law.”

It’s not as if Douglas and Johnson weren’t given a chance to rectify the situation, Knoblock said. While not commenting on Douglas’ case specifically, Knoblock said people in similar situations are given at least three notifications by either phone or mail in the weeks before their benefits are cut.

“We do bend over backwards to give these folks an opportunity to provide the information,” Knoblock said. “We don’t have leeway on things like that. We have set policies and procedures.”

Social Security also has no way of recognizing whether someone has lost the ability to handle their own affairs if the only form of communication is through the mail as is Douglas’ case, Knoblock said.

Johnson argued that in an age where people can communicate in many ways including by phone, problems such as those Douglas experienced should never happen.

“All they had to do is make a phone call to straighten this thing out,” Johnson said, adding that he left several messages for Douglas’ case worker to give the Social Security the policy number. The messages were not returned, he said. “You got rules and regulations that you have to go by. I understand that, but I also understand there’s exceptions to the rules. It’s not fair for them to take her off anything.”

A long life

Douglas, who worked as a sharecropper and raised five children, has outlived her entire family except her daughter, who lives in Houston and doesn’t visit often, according to Douglas and Johnson. She also has grandchildren in the Houston area who don’t concern themselves with her affairs, Johnson said.

For the last 15 years, Johnson has been the one who has driven Douglas to her doctor’s appointments and helped her fill out the paperwork each year so she can keep getting Social Security.

He also makes sure Douglas’ pill bottles stay filled.

“When they run out I always give them to S.W., and he brings them back to me,” Douglas said from her Shiro home last week.

The two met when Johnson moved back to Texas from Chicago in the early 1980s. It was a few years after that when Douglas’ husband became ill and Johnson began helping them both.

After the Douglas situation was resolved last week, Johnson was quick to accept some of the blame.

“We both realized that part of this was our own fault,” Johnson said. “If we would’ve started on this as soon as we got the first letter it wouldn’t have come to this.”

The roadblocks

Johnson said he became so frustrated with the employee handling Douglas’ case that he had to seek help elsewhere.

“We weren’t getting anyplace,” Johnson said. “It really was a weight on my shoulders.”

Loeppert said that people like Douglas and Johnson need to be aware of outlets such as Elder Aid.

“If we would have been contacted about this woman, we would’ve intervened on her behalf,” Loeppert said. “There’s a lot of elderly people like her, that’s a fact. But we need to be alerted to the fact that people like Mrs. Douglas are out there.”

Although he’s served on the Silver Haired Legislature and currently sits on the BVCOG’s Area Agency on Aging advisory committee, Johnson said he wasn’t aware that Elder Aid could help Douglas. That’s one thing he was able to learn from this situation, he said.

Johnson has a reputation in north Grimes County for looking after people like Mrs. Douglas. He said he makes sure they collect their benefits and he drives them to the doctors and to get their prescriptions filled whenever he’s called upon.

“I just help anybody who needs help that I can help,” Johnson said. “I’ll be 85 on the 22nd of this month. Have you ever heard the joke about the blind leading the blind? Because that’s what it is.”

• Brett Nauman’s e-mail address is bnauman@theeagle.com.

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