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New torch bearers: (l-r) Jill Person and Linda Porter in front of the Albany Woman’s Club Madison Avenue mansion; inside the mansion, signs from an earlier time.

PHOTO: Alicia Solsman

Rising From History

A nearly-100-year-old Albany institution reinvents itself for the 21st century, and boosts its membership as it goes

 

The Woman’s Club of Albany, whose ranks had dwindled to just three members two years ago, has come back to life.

A new group of women, who by their own admission just a few years ago might have spurned a woman’s club as a quaint symbol of their mothers’ generation, have instead breathed new life into both the organization and its historic headquarters at 725 Madison Ave.

The club’s revival has taken even some of the women involved in it by surprise.

“You know what I think happened?” asks Linda Porter, a high-school math teacher and now the newly elected club president. “I went to Vassar with a whole lot of women who were going to save the world. It was 1969. If you had said, ‘Oh, there was a woman’s club’ . . . I would have said, ‘Go to hell.’ We lost something good, which was this whole idea of women’s (social) consciousness. And there was this Albany Women’s Club, almost abandoned.”

Now, the club’s membership stands at several dozen, with new attendees turning out every month for the programs and general meetings. In keeping with the original club’s goal of social action, “We’re trying to get it back to doing really good community service,” says Lois Busch, the new treasurer.

The Woman’s Club of Albany began in 1910 with an elite group of 20 members, all of them from financially secure and socially respectable backgrounds. Civic-minded, progressive, socially conscious and unafraid, the members soon began tackling public-spirited projects such as attaining uniform garbage collection in the city, improving the salaries of public-school teachers and obtaining matrons for the women prisoners in the city’s police lockup. The club was so popular that the membership had to be limited to 500, and it admitted new members by a vote using small balls dropped into an oak box. Members who wanted to prohibit someone from joining voted with a black ball.

“They did a lot of really helpful things in the community but kept it low-key,” says Busch. “But one thing is they were persistent. And they became a good lobby. After all, 500 women could have quite an influence on, if no one else, their husbands.”

In 1919, the growing club bought its present headquarters, an approximately 6,000-square-foot mansion originally built as the home of Albany clothier Joseph Steefel. The carved and gilded interior saw several more decades of meetings, musical recitals, dances and lectures before attendance began to dwindle and then plummet in the 1990s.

Then, almost two years ago, El Loco Restaurant on Madison Avenue rented the club headquarters for a party. Several of the guests, including Porter, wondered why the building and the club were languishing.

“The minute I got there, I thought, ‘This was great,’ ” Porter recalls. Phone calls and get-togethers with a handful of other interested women followed, consultations took place with some of the older members from the club’s more active days who still lived in the Capital Region, and calls went out announcing meetings.

The new group of leaders has modeled the resurrected club after the philanthropic philosophy associated with the club throughout its history, and will focus on supporting education, children’s issues and scholarships.

“The women starting this . . . were really concerned with the life of the community, and I think a lot of us are drawn to the idea of making the world a better place,” says Jill Person, a new member who handles publicity and programs for the club.

“Things are rolling,” says club vice president Paula Rosenberg. “We’ve done two holiday parties for foster children of Albany County. We’re trying to do the philanthropy, because that’s what the club was founded on: literacy and education.”

Maren Stein, professor emerita of the Sage Colleges, an expert on the social history of women, told members at a recent club meeting that the Woman’s Club of Albany was part of an early consciousness-raising for 19th-century women in the United States, coming at the same time that women founded literary clubs, current-events clubs and political-equality clubs, which advocated for women’s suffrage.

“This was a way for women to have a voice,” she said. “You’re here, reinventing the whole idea, which I think is a wonderful thing. Today, you’re continuing that work.”

—Darryl McGrath

For inquiries about club membership or events, call 434-4516 and leave a message.


What a Week

Mourning Radio

Last week, CBS radio took Howard Stern’s replacement David Lee Roth off the air and replaced him with Opie and Anthony. Ironically, Opie and Anthony were fired from CBS radio in 2002 for broadcasting the sounds of people having sex in a church. Opie and Anthony also work for XM Satellite Radio. CBS is currently suing Howard Stern for promoting Sirius Satellite Radio on its airwaves before he departed.

Saved by the Bush

Zacarias Moussaoui, the only living person charged in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, isn’t that worried about being sentenced to death. His lawyer has argued in court that he should be allowed to live so that he is not made a martyr. Moussaoui, however, believes his lawyers are trying to kill him. He also believes that no matter what is decided, he will eventually be set free. Moussaoui says he has dreamed that President Bush will release him as part of a prisoner exchange for captured U.S. soldiers before he leaves office in 2009. Guards have testified that Moussaoui has said after his release he plans to “fly to London, write a book, make some money and go back to the mountains of Afghanistan and be Al Qaeda.” Psychologist Xavier Amador says Moussaoui is schizophrenic.

Good Old 33

According to a poll by Fox News, President Bush’s approval ratings have hit an all-time low of 33 percent. A subsequent CNN poll put his approval ratings at 32 percent. In other news, the Bush administration is considering hiring Tony Snow, a Fox News anchor, to replace Scott McClellan as press secretary.

Thanks for the Memories, Thomas Edison

A new lighting material, called organic light-emitting diodes, is in the works. OLEDs produce natural white light, don’t heat up like conventional bulbs (allowing them to conserve energy and last longer), and can be printed wafer thin, transforming ceilings or furniture into lights. The only obstacle left is sealing OLEDs from moisture, which contaminates the sensitive polymer. If this can be overcome, OLED could quickly become the new choice for lighting.



Lame Duck Legacy

Pataki’s Medicaid restrictions in 2006 budget cap off years of quiet attempts to implement unwritten rules

Unless Gov. George Pataki retreats from his current hard-line negotiating stance, three major state-level changes to Medicaid eligibility could be added to two federal ones passed by Congress in February to make Medicaid drastically harder to access for the poor and disabled elderly. Specialists in elder law around the state are saying that these changes, which the Legislature has rejected for several years running, put into law changes of a sort that the state has been quietly encouraging counties to implement without official supporting regulation for years.

The federal changes extend the “look back,” or period of time the financial transactions of a Medicaid applicant are subject to review, from three years to five years, and move the date at which a penalty ineligibility period for giving away money during that five years starts from the date of the gift to the date of application for aid (i.e. when a person is already in need). A memo from the New York State Bar Association Elder Law Section’s Special Committee on Medicaid Legislation notes that these provisions assume that the elderly can predict their medical conditions five years ahead of time, and punishes those who support their families and then experience an unexpected medical crisis.

The state changes would impose penalty ineligibility periods for home care, not just institutionalized care, eliminate the option for well spouses to avoid impoverishment by refusing to include their income in the calculation of their spouses’ eligibility, and dramatically broaden the definition of an estate from which the state can recover Medicaid funds.

The Bar Association’s memo notes that the total effect of these changes will be to increase institutionalization of the elderly as home care becomes less accessible, to create gaps in coverage during which applicants’ health can deteriorate severely, and to impose financial burdens on hospitals and nursing homes whose existing clients lose coverage for a period of time.

Lou Pierro, an Albany-based elder law lawyer, adds that it will also increase the rate of bankruptcy and divorce as desperation measures to secure health care. “The world has changed in a very dramatic way,” he said. “It’s really gloom and doom stuff.”

Punitive approaches to Medicaid that ignore likely long-term increases in the cost to the state are nothing new in New York; it has just been a while since they have successfully made it into law. According to several specialists in elder law around the state, throughout Pataki’s administration, the Department of Health has shied away from formal rulemaking or regulatory processes surrounding Medicaid in favor of quietly encouraging de facto implementation of unwritten restrictions by the counties or through fair hearing proceedings.

For example, at the end of last year Albany County attempted to depart from existing state practice and say social-security income could not be deposited in shielded “special needs trusts” to allow disabled people to access Medicaid and still afford other living expenses. In January, a few days after Metroland wrote about the issue [“Breaking the Trust,” Jan. 5], the Department of Health instructed Albany County that its policy was against state and federal regulations and it should continue to allow the deposits.

But it may not have been merely a case of one county misinterpreting regulations. “It’s my understanding Albany County had put the DOH on notice, waiting for an answer. . . . I do know from talking to the attorney at DSS that they had been asking the state for guidance and not getting any,” explains Kimberly Strauchon Verner, an attorney with Tully, Rinckey and Associates. “DOH, by not answering, was tacitly saying ‘Go ahead’ and if it worked they would try it elsewhere, but if it didn’t they wouldn’t be associated with it.”

Others who have worked with DOH noted that the delay was not unusual for a large state bureaucracy. Still, says Verner, after the Metroland article came out, the state managed to act in “24 to 48 hours.”

It appears that Albany may have been one test case for this type of approach to cutting Medicaid expenses. Verner said she had heard from DSS officials in Ulster County who were watching to see the results of Albany’s experiment closely. Albany County’s DSS commissioner, Elizabeth Berlin, said in January that she knew that Wayne and Broome counties were considering a similar approach, and lawyer Ed Wilcenski noted that Saratoga County had issued a policy with some similar wording as Albany’s though not going as far. Calls to those counties DSS departments were not returned.

While successfully preventing disabled people from putting social security funds into special-needs trusts would have affected only 96 people if implemented in Albany, it would have affected thousands if implemented statewide. The nonprofit NYSARC alone manages 1,150 such trusts, and many more have been set up with private attorneys or by individual trustees.

In another example, the state has now lost three lawsuits in three separate counties regarding an attempt to implement a new, yet unwritten, rule about resource allocations. Under current law a person whose spouse is institutionalized may apply to keep a larger amount of assets than would usually be allowed under Medicaid law if those assets are needed to provide their minimum monthly living expenses, as determined by Medicaid law.

However, over the past couple years, state administrative-law judges who oversee the hearings to approve these extra resource allocations began ruling instead that the non-institutionalized spouse should buy an annuity, effectively generating their needed monthly income by using up their principal rather than by earning interest on it. “People went to hearings where the county didn’t even object [to the requested increase] . . . and suddenly out comes this decision stating you should buy an annuity,” said Rene Reixach of Rochester law firm Woods Oviatt Gilman. “There was never any public notice of this.”

In December 2005 and this February respectively, Supreme Court judges Donna Siwek of Erie County and Robert Sackett of Sullivan County called these decisions “arbitrary, and capricious” and declared them null and void.

Reixach got a little indication of how what he calls “secret rulemaking” at the Department of Health works when someone’s goof left an internal note to the judge in the final copy of a ruling on a request by one of his clients for an increased resource allocation. The allocation was denied because only a small portion of the living expenses—a monthly bill at an assisted living facility for an 88-year-old woman with osteoporosis and dementia—were determined to be “medical.” No such distinction is written into the law, but the note in the ruling reads “Phil: . . . Talked to Wendy about this before kate drafted and she advised that this type of senior assisted living is not grounds for increase, except where shown that cost is for medicals. See what you think. susan.”

Reixach notes that without the increased allowance, his client is likely to end up in a nursing home on Medicaid herself, costing the state more. But what disturbs him more is how, again, the state seemed to be taking a back-door approach to introducing controversial changes in regulatory interpretation. “It’s just a shabby way to do business,” he said.

With the federal Medicaid changes, and especially if Pataki’s additional changes also become law, it becomes even more essential to guard against a slippery slope of non-official erosions of Medicaid eligibility, said Pierro. “Without that, people are done.”

Calls to the state Department of Health were not returned.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

maxel-lute@metroland.net


Overheard

Overheard:

“Delaware Avenue’s haunted.”

“Delaware Avenue?”

“Yeah. Something bad happened there.”

—CDTA Route 18 bus, in the midst of a discussion of haunted houses.

 

Overheard:“Question his manhood.”

—Ralph Nader, at a press conference Tuesday supporting Alice Green, in response to a question about how Green could convince Mayor Jerry Jennings to participate in a debate.



Loose Ends

State Supreme Court Judge Thomas Spargo [“Out of Left Field,” Newsfront, Sept. 1, 2005] was taken off the bench last month by the Commission on Judicial Conduct for abusing his judicial office for personal gain. The most egregious charge Spargo faced was pressuring lawyers who had cases pending before him to make large contributions to his defense fund. Bauer was also charged with distributing $2,000 in gas coupons in an attempt to buy votes during his 1999 run for Berne town justice. He was cleared of a charge of paying for cross-endorsements. Starting Monday, Spargo will have a job as Troy’s deputy corporation counsel. Spargo is not the first disgraced judge to be a Troy city deputy corporation counsel: The city hired former Troy city court judge Henry Bauer after he was removed from the bench in 2004. . . . Citizens for Responsible Zoning has followed through on its promise to file a lawsuit against the city of Albany over the rezoning of a parcel of land on Holland Avenue from office commercial to highway commercial [“A Little Highway in the City,” Newsfront, Dec. 8, 2005]. The Article 78 lawsuit, filed on April 18, attacks the zoning change as illegal spot zoning. CRZ is supported by several elected officials, seven neighborhood associations, the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations, and Save the Pine Bush.



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