What's Your Problem?
September 1, 2013
This weekend marks the eighth anniversary of this column.
For those keeping track, that represents about 1,200 columns, culled from an estimated 80,000 emails and letters.
You might think the Problem Solver has seen almost every consumer complaint imaginable.
Miriam Greenberg is determined to prove you wrong.
The West Chicago resident submitted an email about a problem she was having with the state.
No, Illinois doesn't owe Greenberg any money.
In fact, she has the opposite problem.
"This may sound like a strange request," her email started out. "We can't get the state of Illinois to claim the money that is owed to them."
Greenberg's mother, Gertrude Kushner, passed away June 1, 2009, at age 95 after living several years in a nursing home. The family sold everything Kushner owned to pay for her care. After the money ran out, Medicaid began paying Kushner's nursing home bills, through the state's Department of Healthcare and Family Services.
After Kushner died, the state sent a letter to Greenberg's sister, Natalie Frankenberg, stating Illinois was entitled to all of Kushner's remaining assets. At the time, Kushner had $1,542.28 in a checking account, money the family had kept separate to pay for incidentals and other charges.
Greenberg agreed that the money should go to Illinois.
"They spent over $26,000 on my mother's care over the years," she said. "Any assets left over are supposed to be turned over to the state. It's reasonable."
You'd think it would be easy to get the state to accept a check for $1,542.28.
The state's letter to the family in 2009 listed a phone number and instructions from a Healthcare and Family Services field consultant, who wrote "don't hesitate to contact me by phone."
"If I am not in, leave your name and telephone number, the case name and case number with my answering service, and I will return your call as soon as possible," the letter said.
Frankenberg said she called the number repeatedly during the next four years, but could never reach the field consultant. No one called back.
So the $1,542.28 sat untouched in a bank.
At one point, the bank started charging inactivity fees on the account, but Frankenberg visited the branch, described the situation, and the manager waived the fees.
Tired of waiting for the state to claim the money, Greenberg emailed What's Your Problem?
She said she and her husband worked for the state of Illinois for decades until they retired three years ago.
"We just got fed up with (it)," she said.
Initially, Greenberg hoped her contacts at the state could help persuade Healthcare and Family Services to accept the money, but none of her former colleagues came through, she said.
Given the state's financial situation, Greenberg said it was unconscionable Illinois wouldn't take her mother's $1,542.28.
"It takes the state almost a year to pay their portion of our health insurance," Greenberg said. "It's ridiculous. This is money they could use to pay the bills they have. This is one of the reasons my husband and I retired when we did. It's so frustrating."
Frankenberg said she had friends tell her she should close her mother's checking account and pocket the money.
"I couldn't do that," she said. "That's just not my way of doing things. Honest people don't do things like that, and I like to think of myself as an honest person."
On Monday, the Problem Solver called Kelly Jakubek, a spokeswoman for the Department of Healthcare and Family Services.
The next day, the field consultant who sent the 2009 letter called Frankenberg and set up a time to accept the money.
On Wednesday, Frankenberg went to the bank and got a $1,542.28 cashier's check made out to the state. She then closed her mother's checking account.
Frankenberg delivered the check to the state Thursday.
The field consultant apologized for previous miscommunications, and said he had been on two military deployments during the past four years, Frankenberg said.
"We appreciate the family's honesty and diligent efforts in resolving this matter," Jakubek said.
While Greenberg and Frankenberg were happy to finally pay the state what it was owed, both expressed concern that others might find themselves in a similar situation.
"The big thing for me is, this is just a tiny little drop in the bucket," Frankenberg said. "How many other people owe money that isn't being collected? Hopefully, this will spur the department to be more aggressive collecting money."
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