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Assemblymembers advocate protection of spousal refusal

Local elected officials are working across the aisle to protect the rights of seniors.

Assemblymembers Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican, and Felix Ortiz and Pamela Harris, both Democrats, held a press conference at the St. Nicholas Home, 437 Ovington Avenue, on Friday, January 29 to call for the renewal of spousal refusal, a provision in state law that protects the assets of a husband or wife whose spouse is receiving long-term care in a nursing home. The provision is slated for elimination in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Budget.

“Where we disagree on many issues in the budget, this is one issue that transcends party lines,” Malliotakis said. “The issue of spousal refusal has been an ongoing war since I’ve been in the Assembly and it seems every year when the governor proposes the budget, there’s always a proposal to eliminate spousal refusal in the state of New York. It’s a very important protection for our senior citizens.”

According to Malliotakis, spousal refusal allows the healthy spouse to keep $119,220 in assets as well as the couple’s car and home. “Without the protection of spousal refusal, that spouse would essentially have to go bankrupt and only be allowed to have around $23,844 in assets,” she said.

Harris agreed that the provision must be protected for seniors. “It’s definitely not a Democratic or a Republican issue. It’s a common sense issue,” she said, stressing that the issue is also a personal one for her. “My mother — who had pancreatic cancer and has since passed away — had worked for 45 years as an occupational therapist and what she was able to accumulate in those years was a minimal savings. When she had cancer, I could not put her into a nursing home. They were going to deplete what little assets she had.”

Harris also discussed the ramifications of eliminating spousal refusal. “Not only are they going to have to take care of their spouse, they’re going to have to deal with losing whatever they’ve accumulated,” she said.

Ortiz said he believes the potential budget cut is unfair. “Every year, [Governor Cuomo] comes up with a proposal that makes no sense by tackling a vulnerable population, whether it’s a minority group, programs, seniors or schools,” he said. “Why do we have to punish the sacrifice they have made throughout their lives? I’m here to say we will oppose this proposal that the governor has put forward.”

Spouse refusal protects about 8,400 seniors and allows them to receive Medicaid benefits.

“That’s a very small number,” Malliotakis added. “We shouldn’t be looking to cut Medicaid costs on the backs of our senior citizens. There’s so much fraud and abuse in the system. That’s what we should be targeting.”

All three assemblymembers believe the potential cut will not be in the final budget. Nonetheless, for now, “It creates such anxiety and fear in the seniors that they could potentially lose everything and go bankrupt,” Malliotakis said. “Hopefully, it will be resolved at the end of the budget process.”

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