Q: What's the Opposite of a Miracle?

A: What the state does to the families of people who die while poor

There will come a time when Friday, March 10, 2001 -- the day California transportation officials unleashed their vacuum trucks on a hallowed ditch near Terra Linda in Marin County -- shall be remembered as a fateful moment of history.

On that day, the waters of Las Gallinas Creek -- or, at least, the waters of a drainage ditch that leads to Las Gallinas Creek -- turned to wine. As prophesied in John 2:1-11, a tanker overturned on Highway 101, spilling 3,500 gallons of fermented grape juice, staining a huge swath of pavement burgundy, and the water in the ditch rosé. State and county officials dispatched vacuum trucks to suck the wine from the tributary, a civil waste management official was cited as saying in a local news report1, and the vacuum trucks turned the wine back into water, in so doing performing a heresy.

Did not Jesus of Nazareth, at a wedding celebration in the village of Cana in Galilee, launch the Christian tradition of religious mysticism by performing a miracle much like the one at Las Gallinas Creek?2 Did not Canned Heat, in its indelible classic "Going Up the Country," say, "I'm goin', I'm goin' where the water tastes like wine/ I'm going where the water tastes like wine/ We can jump in the water, stay drunk all the time"3?

Although I don't ordinarily believe in omens, in my mind the image of those vacuum tubes draining the Las Gallinas Creek tributary of its pinkish glory quickly fades into a vision of future rue: We are perched, I fear, on the precipice of mad, cruel, times. Events in the months leading up to The Heresy of Interstate 101 seem to add significance to the omen, portending an era much like the 1980s, when Proposition 13 stripped our state of education and other services, a hard-right Republican administration made it fashionable to scorn the poor, and the forces of evil subsequently marred an entire decade.

Rough estimates of the cost of the electricity bailout announced by Gov. Gray Davis -- a bailout that includes state-financed power purchases and an agreement to buy privately held power lines -- are in the $20 billion range, out of a total state budget of $104 billion. This doesn't include the price tag for buying or building new power plants, as approved by the Legislature a couple of weeks ago. The prospect of a massive, debt-fueled, utility-rescuing spending spree has already lowered the value of California's outstanding bonds, and the bond rating agency Standard & Poor's has put the state on guard for a possible ratings downgrade. It won't be very long before Sacramento has little money for anything beyond paying down debt that it agreed to take on for the benefit of power companies.

At the national level, meanwhile, President Bush's disgraceful tax cut would pauperize a federal budget that provides most of the social services that Californians receive. In reducing taxes on the nation's most affluent 1 percent of families by $774 billion, for example, Bush II proposes to strip the federal treasury of money that could provide Medicare prescription coverage to 39 million elderly Americans.

I was too young to recognize the act of depravity that condemned us to our last such cursed age, the Reagan Revolution, and the era of Proposition 13, where voters authorized property tax cuts that eliminated funding for schools, parks, libraries, and county and social services across the state.

But within a few short years, I saw the results. I saw libraries closed on Saturdays, their bookshelves now empty. I saw parks charging entry fees, their swing sets rusty and broken. I saw school taught in trailers, and municipal swimming pools drained empty. I saw public life wither in a state that grew mean. Now, as I imagine a ditch-worth of watery wine sucked into a Marin County haz-mat tanker, I see that in California, again, a hard rain is going to fall.4

In hopes of peering into the soggy California future, I asked for help from Art Linfoot, a retired engineer. Years ago, Art and his sister, Gail, moved to Butte County, about three hours north of here, to dedicate themselves to the care of their aging mother, who lived in a trailer house. "We did it because of our love for my mom. It wasn't like we had to," Art says. "We wanted to."

After their mother died in 1997, Gail Linfoot continued living in the trailer with her two children, whom she supports with the aid of a meager income supplemented by county health assistance. Not long afterward, Art received a letter demanding $3,931 the state said he owed as reimbursement for assistance his mother received under Medi-Cal, the state's health care program for the indigent elderly, before she died.

And because Art, Gail, and their mother jointly owned the land under the trailer house, California's estate recovery program, crafted in 1993 to help heal an ailing state budget, began gnawing on the Linfoots.

Under this "program," California has become one of the most aggressive -- some might say abusive -- states in the nation when it comes to dunning the heirs of elderly people who were poor enough to receive benefits from Medi-Cal. California is more ruthless than most states, going beyond what federal law requires, a federal review conducted two years ago says. In one case the state sued to force a Sacramento couple to sell their family farm after they spent years caring for an ailing father.

In the case of the Linfoots, the state went after the piece of dirt under a mobile home where an impoverished woman had spent years tending to her mother.

Unable to pay the money, Art and Gail Linfoot filed for a hardship waiver. State officials ignored the request and sent letters telling Art to pay up, always mentioning that interest was accruing at 9 percent. Only after Pat McGinnis of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform wrote letters, attended hearings, and filed petitions did the state drop what turned out to be an invalid claim for the land.

"I had to spend hours of very precious time to fight $3,000 on a mobile home. I had to go to two hearings. They said they couldn't find my appeal. I send them a copy, and the woman representing the Attorney General's Office said I sent it after the fact. Can you imagine -- all of a sudden they "lose' my hearing appeal," says McGinnis. "I know they spent more than $3,000 to send that woman down from the AG's Office."

The state's zeal tends to be focused on the poorest heirs of the indigent elderly; the poor, after all, don't usually hire attorneys to advise them how to protect their assets from state seizure. Obtaining this protection is no big trick. It's usually just a matter of transferring the assets to heirs before a parent dies. But the state takes no steps to advise Medi-Cal recipients of these rights.

A pending lawsuit alleges that the state has been extracting money from survivors of Medi-Cal beneficiaries without any public guidelines on the procedures it uses.

In one case, the 78-year-old, disabled daughter of a deceased Medi-Cal beneficiary was talked into signing a "voluntary" lien on her home. The daughter had lived in the home for more than 10 years, providing in-home care to keep her mother out of a nursing home. The state filed an estate claim to recoup $14,000 paid to her under a state program that provides minimum wages to in-home care workers, including family members.

"The problem is that people who are elderly, poor, who cannot read or speak English, who do not know their rights, who were given misinformation by the Medi-Cal eligibility worker, or who simply can't afford to pay an attorney $200 per hour, tend not to transfer their homes during life," McGinnis, the nursing home activist, says. "If you know your rights and can afford to hire an attorney to do estate planning, you won't end up with an estate claim. All of my cases are against retired people on fixed incomes, poor people whose only asset is the home their parents left to them, or non-English-speaking people who didn't know their rights."

The state has already lost three lawsuits that claimed it had illegally filed estate recovery claims. The suits resulted in permanent injunctions against the state and millions of dollars in reimbursements and attorneys' fees.

Vivian Able, acting chief of the state's Department of Health Services Third Party Liability Branch, says that, in response to the 1999 federal review, California has decided to make more efforts to inform Medi-Cal recipients about the state's asset recovery program.

So will the state work on doing a better job informing the heirs, who are the actual victims of the abuses described in the federal report? Will the state agency make a habit of telling family members that, unless they transfer property out of the Medi-Cal beneficiary's name, they stand to lose it?

"We have no obligation to tell the heirs," Able says. Besides, she adds, "We don't know who the heirs are. When a beneficiary dies and we initiate an applicant package -- we don't have their names, there's no way for us to have that information."

Presumably, asking the Medi-Cal beneficiaries who their heirs are is beyond the state's capabilities.

In San Francisco the pain of a state Medi-Cal asset seizure can be especially great, given that Laguna Honda Hospital, the city's most prominent facility serving the indigent elderly, is reimbursed by the state at twice the rate of ordinary nursing homes. Because Laguna Honda has facilities providing acute medical care, it is able to charge the state $6,500 per month per patient, more than twice the $2,700 charged by ordinary private nursing homes.

So this means that May Stubblefield, a former 25-cent-an-hour railway worker, a daughter of slaves who dreamed of bequeathing her children her Western Addition home, could have been held to owe the Department of Health Services $340,000 when she died. The house she'd hoped to leave to her kids was worth $360,000 at the time.

"This was the only thing she had in her whole life. She'd worked her whole life for this house, and she really wanted to give it to her grandchildren," says Elizabeth Arnold, attorney to Mary Stubblefield, May's daughter.

The state eventually settled for $130,000; the house eventually sold for $410,000. So the Stubblefields came out OK.

And with McGinnis' help, Art Linfoot finally got the state to back off. His sister and her children have a place to stay, and they've got the land.

Linfoot's still angry, though.

"They are beating up the poor, and there are other people in our area who have been pressured into paying," Linfoot says.

State Sen. Nell Soto (D-Pomona) is sponsoring a bill that would partly defang the Medi-Cal recovery squads. It would exempt sons or daughters of deceased Medi-Cal beneficiaries, who had taken care of their parents, from having to pay a Medi-Cal claim if that would mean giving up their home. It would keep the state from seizing assets from a surviving spouse. It would keep the state from taking the assets of a blind or disabled child.

Soto's seems to be reasonable legislation, but similar bills have failed to become law each of the past four years. And following Gray Davis' multibillion-dollar electricity bailout, and George Bush's trillion-dollar sop to the rich, such luxuries as not seizing the homes of the poor, blind, and disabled may become less affordable by the moment.

Already, in the next county over from Linfoot's home, supervisors must decide between failing to build a new dog pound, and thereby falling afoul of state animal cruelty laws, or closing down the county's system of community clinics. "For the 25 percent of our county residents who don't have health insurance and can't find a doctor who will take Medi-Cal, the clinics are their last resort," says Tehama County Supervisor Charlie Willard.

In San Francisco, an extremely wealthy city with a historical commitment to caring for the poor, we will share a special responsibility for the poor, and the elderly, and especially the poor and elderly during the coming storm. For those of us who live under rent control, or who benefited from our just-ending economic boom, perhaps it's time to pause a moment, ponder our priorities, sip a glass of red wine, and kick in a little money to, say, the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.5

1 http://www.marinij.com/ 2 On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." [John 2:1-5 RSV]

Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast." So they took it. [John 2:6-8 RSV]

When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, "Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now." [John 2:9-10 RSV] 3 Copyright 1967 by Alan Wilson

4 "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," fromThe Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

5 Or, if you prefer, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp., Omega Boys Club of S.F., La Casa de las Madres, Coleman Advocates, Columbia Park Boys & Girls Clubs, Legal Aid Society of S.F., Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights, or your local church, synagogue, or mosque

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