Sequester cuts hit poor, elderly, cancer patients

By Sharon Cohen

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, June 15 2013 10:35 a.m. MDT

Still, she can't hide her frustration. "I'm concerned," she says, "our scientific programs will be undermined and that will set us back as a country," delaying important discoveries.

Nahta, a breast cancer researcher since 1995, has been receiving NIH grants for the past seven years. She studies how drug resistance develops in breast cancer cells, work she says is critical for developing medicines to combat the disease.

She's continuing to work hard while looking for alternative sources of public and private funding and wondering about the next check.

"It puts that extra bit of fear and drive and uncertainty into everything," she says.

For years, Melvin Lewis was the ideal candidate for the Meals on Wheels program that faithfully rolled up to his door in Maine twice a week. A cancer survivor and diabetic, he scraped by on a tight budget and had difficulty getting around.

Lewis dropped the program for several months when he moved into a nursing home, but after his health improved this spring, he settled into his own efficiency apartment. The 79-year-old widower then reapplied — only to discover it wasn't that simple.

Spectrum Generations, the social service agency that serves the elderly, disabled adults and their families in six central Maine counties, has been trying to absorb a $70,000 loss in federal aid even as it faces increased demands for help. For the first time in its 40-year history, agency officials say, there's a waiting list for its Meals on Wheels program. Lewis is among about 110 names.

"The stories of people waiting are horrendous," says Lynda Johnson, one of the agency's nutrition coordinators. "There are people who have terminal cancer, people in wheelchairs or with dementia. It's been horrible. It's hard to say, 'No, I cannot help you at this time.'"

Some private citizens have agreed to subsidize meals for someone in need until the new budget year begins. "Good deeds do arise out of the mess," Johnson says.

Delivery has been reduced from twice to once a week to save money, and this new austerity has been explained to recipients, says Debra Silva, the agency's vice president of public education.

"They understand — somewhat," Silva says. "They've heard the word sequester. They know there are cuts. They hope they'll go away. Some have written letters and made calls. ... That's impressive because this is a population that doesn't like to make waves."

Lewis, a former textile mill worker, says he has little left after paying rent and buying about $150 in groceries each month, though his daughter often helps out. "It's very hard to live this way," he says. "I'm almost 80. I have a few good years left and I'd like to live them in comfort."

He sometimes visits a church-run food kitchen but it's two miles away and he uses a walker, so he can't make the trip without a ride. He also stocks up at a food pantry once a month. "I can cook. Don't get me wrong," he says. "But sometimes it's hard for me to plan a good meal" — because ingredients are too costly.

Lewis says he's been told why there's less money available: "Government, politics — I just don't understand it half the time."

He's also been told it may take time before he gets back in the program. He's trying to be patient.

"If they say no, then no is the answer," he says. "I guess I just have to accept it."

Sequestration has meant longer drives and other inconvenience for many Medicare patients seeking treatment, because local clinics can no longer afford to provide the care.

"It's a little like we're the frog in the hot water, you know?" says Dr. Barbara McAneny, head of the New Mexico Cancer Center in Albuquerque, repeating the old story of the heat being turned up gradually until "you have a boiled, dead frog."

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