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Federal cuts hit poor, elderly, ill

3:28 PM, Jun 16, 2013   |    comments
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The first warnings about the spending cuts were dire.

In March, as the sweeping $85 billion reductions known as sequestration kicked in, President Barack Obama called them "stupid" and "arbitrary" and said they could thwart economic progress. Opponents said the administration was using scare tactics, predicting doom even though the cuts amounted to a tiny slice of the federal budget.

Public opinion is divided: Fifty-six percent of Americans surveyed in an ABC News-Washington Post poll in May disapproved of the cuts, but far fewer - 37 percent - reported they'd been personally hurt. Still, that was up from 25 percent in March.

More than three months into the sequester, it's far too soon to measure the full impact of the start of a 10-year budget-cutting plan that was supposed to be so undesirable that it would force both sides on Capitol Hill to come up with something better. That didn't happen.

Many more furloughs are planned. Bills have been introduced to spare certain people, such as cancer patients, from the cuts' effects. Others have been exempted. Congress, for example, passed a measure putting air traffic controllers back to work after flights were delayed around the country.

But there is pain and anxiety, too, notably among the poor, the elderly and the sick - and social service agencies that serve them. Here are some of their stories:

Public defenders
When the budget was cut for Steve Nolder's public defender office, he knew someone had to go.

As chief federal defender for the southern district of Ohio, Nolder had to find a way to slash 11 percent from the budget.

So he did what seemed most logical: He fired himself.

Nolder figured his 26 years of experience would give him the best opportunities for a career in private practice.

Nolder is among 12 lawyers who handle about 1,200-1,250 cases a year in the district covering Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus. They're so busy, he says, they could use another two attorneys.

Jobless benefits
The letter from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity felt like a punch in the face to Charles Medler.

"You have exhausted your Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) Tier III benefits," the letter read. No more were available.

The 57-year-old from Interlachen thought he had four more weeks of benefits coming. It was just $275 a week, but it made a huge difference.

"You plan, 'Well, OK. We're good for another month or month and a half. I still have a little more time left,' " Medler says. "And you start planning for that, and then all of a sudden, bang, the rug gets pulled out from underneath you?"

Tier III are federally funded benefits that start when a worker has exhausted 19 weeks of payments by the state. But while other states made the cuts by trimming the amount individuals receive, Florida's solution was to lop off the last four weeks of benefits for up to 100,000 laid-off workers.

Meals on Wheels
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.' "

Health care
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."

McAneny says her practice has had to turn away at least 10 patients in order to keep its clinic in Gallup - which serves mainly poor Navajo patients - afloat.

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