Advocates for poor question state officials on Corbett General Assistance cut

Posted: September 29, 2012

The Corbett administration has provided no help or alternatives for those hurt by the governor's decision to cut funding that paid for medication and other critical needs, the poor and their advocates told state officials Thursday.

On Aug. 1, Gov. Corbett ended the state's General Assistance program, which had provided $205 a month to 70,000 Pennsylvanians. Since then, former recipients have been going without medication for diseases such as HIV and can't pay for basic needs, advocates told state officials in a meeting at the Department of Public Welfare Offices in Center City.

Joseph Metmowlee Garland, a doctor at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, said General Assistance had helped his patients pay for phone service and transportation, each necessary to get medical care.

"I have patients with HIV losing weight now because they don't have food access," Garland said.

Garland and other attendees said the missed care would drive up the state's expenses. For example, they said, people who had used the program for rent may end up in a shelter; people with mental illness who miss medications may need hospital care.

"You are going to be flooding homeless shelters, jails and psychiatric hospitals. This is not going to balance our budget," said Waheedah Shabazz-El of U.S. Positive Women's Network, an advocate for people with HIV.

Deputy Welfare Secretary Lourdes Padilla promised to share the group's recommendations with the governor.

She also said the state would continue to seek other ways to help former General Assistance recipients.

General Assistance served as a stopgap program for some recipients who eventually qualified for Social Security disability. When that was granted, the federal government reimbursed Pennsylvania for its expenditures.

Qualifying for Social Security disability often takes two years, and Padilla said the state was working to speed up that process. But, she said, "it's not something that can be done in a week or two."

Corbett cited budget problems in explaining why he got rid of the program, which cost $150 million a year. Critics countered that the program represented a tiny portion of the $27.65 billion state budget, and noted that the governor had cut $300 million in business taxes.

About 20 people attended Thursday's meeting with Padilla and other officials. Several participants said former recipients were going without needed drugs because they no longer can afford co-pays.

Jose De Marco, who represented ACT-UP Philadelphia, which works to eliminate HIV and AIDS, said skipping medications was very risky. The virus can mutate, rendering medication ineffective.

Former recipients still get state medical care, and Pennsylvania law says pharmacists must fill those prescriptions even if a patient can't pay. But some pharmacies refuse to fill those prescriptions, and many consumers don't know their rights, advocates said.

Suzanne Miller, who said she cannot work because she has AIDS, said losing general assistance meant she could no longer pay for Mucinex, an over-the-counter drug that eases congestion. She believes that going without it made her ill.

"I just got pneumonia again," she said. "My days are numbered."

Lance Haver, who represents PA Cares for All, an advocacy group that supports restoring the program, repeatedly demanded that Padilla state exactly when the state would explain which programs would become substitutes.

Haver is director of Mayor Nutter's Office of Consumer Affairs, but said his support of the program was personal, based on the experience of his son, Daren Dieter, who was shot and paralyzed in 2007 and depended on it for a time before he died.

"People have been without benefits since July 31," said Haver. "What programs did the governor find?"

Padilla repeatedly pointed to Social Security.


Contact Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520, hillmb@phillynews.com or @miriamhill on Twitter.

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