Fighting for 'The Forgotten'

Alice Skidmore never ran for office, never thought of herself as an activist. But her expertise as a caring citizen has propelled her on a mission to Annapolis.

January 24, 2002|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

INTO THE new $24 million state Senate building walked Alice Skidmore, private citizen. She looked up at the Tiffany glass dome; she looked down at the tile mosaic of the state seal. Here, in this elegant place, she thought of her mother and the other seniors on Medicaid back home in a Frostburg nursing home. She thought of the shabby underwear she mended as a volunteer there, of the Christmas cards sold to residents for a penny, of how good a $38 "wash and set" makes a woman feel. Surely, Alice thought, there is money here for my bill.

She was not politically savvy or wise to the legislative process. She had never been involved in politics - unless you count the Shriners' auxiliary, the Daughters of the Nile, the Frostburg Garden Club or voting. She had certainly never initiated a bill before. Her expertise was what she had gathered in 66 years as a secretary, a mother, a grandmother, a parishioner at St. John's Episcopal Church, a member of the flower guild and, most recently, president of the nursing home's "Family Council."

Still, standing in the lobby of the Senate building with six others who'd come in the nursing home van that February day last year, Alice was not as nervous as she thought she'd be. It had taken her four years to get this far, so she was not about to back down. She would fight for an increase in a Medicaid recipient's monthly allowance for personal use this year, next year - however long it took.

In the lobby, she waited for the bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. John Hafer, to lead her group to the Senate Finance Committee. They must have seemed an unlikely delegation: gray-haired Alice, who'd worn a suit and avoided slacks on the advice of a lawyer friend; her husband Tom; administrators from Frostburg Village Nursing Care Center; an elder-care lawyer; and Mrs. Mildred Rebele, in her wheelchair.

Every year, Maryland lawmakers consider an estimated 2,300 bills. While many come from lobbyists and special-interest groups, others can be traced to individuals like Alice, passionate enough about an item or issue to pursue legislation.

When it was Alice's turn to speak before the committee, she held her notes in front of her and though her voice cracked, it was because she felt strongly, not because she was intimidated. "When I looked at those senators, I thought, `You all look so well-groomed.' `Manicured' came to mind, and I thought our people, who put money in the Maryland budget all these years, are sitting in nursing homes, and the majority of them are shabbily dressed."

She told the senators that her mother, Sara Parry, had saved coins in a jar, milked cows, raised chickens, sold eggs and never once asked for help. Alice explained how her mother liked peppermint patties, bath powder and having her hair done, and how she and her brothers and sister helped pay for those things. But what about the others, those without family, or those with family unable to help?

The money given to nursing-home residents for their personal needs was their money, Alice felt - it came from their Social Security checks. And yet the $40 a month was no longer enough. These days, a wash and set alone cost $38, a color rinse $2, conditioner $5. Women like her mother came from a generation who went to the beauty parlor once a week, and Alice had seen how quickly her mother's savings was depleted.

"The medical community has increased our years on this Earth," Alice told the committee. "What good are these years if we are to live as our state's forgotten citizens? Quality of life is what we want for ourselves and our loved ones."

She understood that increasing the monthly allowance would increase how much the state and federal governments would have to reimburse nursing homes. She knew taxpayers would get the $4 million bill. But the allowance had not been raised in 14 years, and she thought her mother and the others were worth every additional penny.

Mrs. Rebele, 86, spoke next, from her wheelchair.

"It is hard when you only get $40 a month. I have a monthly cable TV bill of $11, life insurance premium of $12 and to have my hair done once is $10. You add all that up and there's nothing left at the end of the month. I've lost 96 pounds and need to buy new clothes, but I can't afford to. I like to get carry-out food once in a while, but I can't always afford it. It is a shame that I have no choice but to give up things that others take for granted."

After the hearing, Alice's delegation returned to their home in the mountains, feeling good about what they had done. Alice's hopes sailed even higher when, days later, the Senate passed the bill 47-0.

But the bill still faced an uphill battle. Though an amendment had reduced the $20 monthly increase to $10, bills with price tags are almost always difficult to pass.

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