Thirty-year-old James Goodman of Silver Spring found himself financially sinking a few weeks ago. A disabled veteran with a wife and two children, his VA checks were cut from $186 to $50 because of a technicality he didn't understand.
Goodman attends Maryland School of Art part-time and can only work a few days a week because of a bad leg. His wife can't work at all because of an illness. The $186 check paid the rent.
In a word, James Goodman was frantic. He called his congressman and Jonas Fineman showed up on his doorstep.
Fineman, a novice case worker in the office of Rep. Newton Steers (R-Md.) has implemented a method of solving problems new to Capitol Hill. He makes house calls.
"I was absolutely shocked when he told me he was coming over. I just couldn't believe it," said Goodman, whose dilemma has since been resolved by Fineman.
"I can't say enough about the guy. He must have stayed here three hours listening to everything I had to say. He's helped me tremendously. He really gives you the feeling he's on your side."
A psychiatric social worker for 10 years in Montgomery County, Fineman joined Steer's staff last January after actively volunteering in his campaign. He came up with the idea of making house calls when some of his cases were too complicated for the phone.
"It all started out just as an experiment", said Fineman. "I was just curious to see if people's problems looked as difficult when you were with them as they do over the phone.
"When you're with them you feel the impact of what the problem is; all the frustration people have been going through. Many of them have had problems pending for nearly a year."
Fineman began making house calls a few months ago, and now goes out two or three nights a week, generally for the more complicated cases.
Melvin and Andrea Kopstein of Bethesda called their congressman as a final resort. The young couple recently applied for a VA loan to finance a $120,000 home in Potomac. They had already put $8,000 down.
Since the Kopsteins applied for the loan, their financial situation has changed tremendously. Mrs, Kopstein has resigned from her job effective Spet. 1, cutting back their $40,000 income to $25,000.They have also purchased a second car and claim the mortgage company did not include all of this information in the loan form. Consequently, the VA loan was approved and the Kopsteins are saddled with a house they can't afford. If they break the contract, they stand a chance if losing their $8,000 down payment.
"I can't promise these people anything", said Fineman, who advised the couple to retain a good lawyer."I can only tell them I'll do my best. So far I've had a tremendous amount of luck and not too much frustration."
Fineman is one of six staff aides in Steer's office who handle case work but the only one so far who makes house calls.
Late Social Security checks, military discharges, misplaced government forms and workman's compensation are among the 200 cases that Steers's office receives weekly.
All the cases are broken down into specific areas and assigned to different case workers. At any one time, aides may have 30 or 40 cases pending with five or 10 new ones assigned to them daily.
"With Steers being a local member of Congress, we get a lot more cases coming in than the congressman from lowa," says Dave O'Bryon, Steers' district coordinator. "Constituents call for everything because they just don't know where else to turn. We either direct to the right place or try to solve the case ourselves."
Case worker and Suzi Albert, who handles civil service and workman's compensation cases, says her most frustrating experiences involve writing and calling government agencies and never getting a straight answer to a question.
Admittedly, Albert said, the job does have certain gratifications. "A woman recently named her bady after me because I helped her husband get a check that was owned him by for workman's compansation."
In several cases, a constitutent complaint has led Steers to introduce legislation in an effort to correct on overall problem.
Recently a constitutent wrote Steers complaining he was forced to pay $147 for a wheel chair out of $322 Medicare income.
"My difficulty", said the constituent in his letter, "is that I had to pay the entire amount out of my pocket but will only be reimbursed in dribbles."
Shortly following the complaint, Steers introduced a bill that would allow Medicare recipients to receive payment for medical equipment in one lump sum.
All Steers case workers agree most cases are not easily simplified, and it's important not to get personally involved.
"I'm very empathetic to their problems, says Fineman, who predominantly handles veterans cases. "But I try not to get emotionally involved. Besides I've seen so many manic depressants and suicide cases in my last job that someone's late check is important but I can deal with it."
Fineman says his main effort in making house calls is to bring the government closer to the people, and "let them know we care. Steers told me to be as creative as I wanted in my job and that's what I'm doing.
Says Steers about his travelling case worker. "I think it's fantastic. I think he deserves a lot of credit for initiating it. I wouldn't put any pressure on the rest of my staff to work nights but I certainly would encourage it."