Alex Kramer, a member of the Queen Anne's County commission of aging and a senior citizen himself, was angry. The Maryland General Assembly earlier this year defeated a proposal to allow trained volunteers, know as ombudsmen, to investigate private nursing home records on behalf of patients, and he thought he knew why.
"Nursing home administrators -- who have a big, strong, rich lobby -- came down on the bill and equashed it flat," he said. So Kramer made the 90-minute trip to Columbia to attend a meeting sponsored recently by Health Facilities Association of Maryland, which represents the nursing home indrustry in Annapolis, and to find out why the association had opposed the bill.
Tom Smick, an association board member, told Kramer and the 30 others who represented senior citizens' organizations at the meeting that his organization had testified against the bill in Annapolis because it feared a "legal bazaar" could have resulted from "unlimited access (to private files) that might impinge on a patient's privacy." He said nursing homes are legally responsible for protecting their patients' privacy and they "did not want to be paying (lawyers) to protect our legal liabilities -- paying attorneys hundreds of thousands of dollars in the next year -- because of bad legislation that did not protect us and the patient as well."
Smick pointed out, however, that after the bill was amended, the association withdrew it opposition.
The exchange between Kramer and Smick was part of an informal luncheon at the Lorien Nursing Home. The guests had been invited to discuss how issues affecting the elderly fared in the 1981 Maryland General Assembly.
"Very little (legislation) was enacted," compared with prior years, said Smick. He added that "fiscal uncertainty" in the legislature had made it difficult to pass such measures.
The changing economic tide that swept away a number of important bills also hit the 1982 Medicaid budget. Smick said that after some "behind-the-door-type" meetings, the legislators slashed $11 million from the $518 million in Medicaid funds requested by the governor, part of which pays hospital and nursing home bills for the elderly. The state Health Department, Office on Aging and private senior-citizen groups lobbied vigorously against the cuts but were unsuccessful, Smick said.
A major bond issue did survive the financial squeeze, however. It allows the state to borrow $1 million for the conversion of surplus public buildings into social centers for the elderly. Dr. Matthew Tayback, director of Maryland's Office on Aging, said this measure was much needed because both the elderly population and its social and intellectual needs are growing rapidly.
Tayback also lauded the passage of two bills to protect the rights of older persons who cannot care for themsleves and become wards of the state.
One measure provides for appointment of a Guardianship Advisory Board to assist the director of the Office on Aging in making important decisions for such persons. As an example of matters he has had to decide alone, Tayback mentioned consent for major surgery on an elderly diabetic. "This is a striking responsibility (taken) for an individual who is not your relative," he said, expressing relief that he will have the help of the new board, which is to include a lawyer, a member of the clergy and a lay person.
The second bill requires the drafting of guidelines for the disposition of unclaimed remains of persons who die in nursing homes.Such remains routinely have been turned over the the state Anatomy Board for use in medical research, and Tayback said writing the new rules will be "very tricky" because the Anatomy Board is concerned with the needs of the medical schools.
One piece of legislation that received overwhelming support is the "Golden Age Card," that will entitle persons 65 and older to discounts from participating retailers. Tayback said his office will begin distributing the cards early next year.
The discount cards won't cost the state much money but another legislative proposal, known as the family support bill, could prove expensive. It would allot public funds to assist families in caring for their elderly relatives. That bill has been tabled for "summer study" of its potential costs, and Tayback said the perceived "fiscal impact" of the proposal may defeat it in the next session.
After the discussion of new legislation, the luncheon table talk turned to grass-roots lobbying efforts for pending senior-citizen issues. Marcella Spigelmire, of the Maryland Retired Teachers Association, offered the support of her organization."We can reach 8,000 people in 12 hours," she said. "We have no problem getting information on any bill to any of our people, and we can flood the legislature with our telephone calls." She said the retired teachers have been so active that some legislators have been overhead to remark, "Those damn teachers are calling again."
Smick said that during the past General Assembly session, advocates of seniors' causes were a formidable group. He observed that they were outnumbered only by the motorcyclists who came to Annapolis to testify against a helmet bill.