Two tours in Vietnam.
A Purple Heart.
A welding accident.
Death at 61.
A bill for $277,186.96.
Sarah Miller received a letter from the state of Iowa asking for $277,186.96 to pay medical expenses left by her long-time companion, Vietnam veteran Roger Lennon. They shared ownership in the rental home in the background that helped pay his expenses at a veteran’s facility in Marshalltown, Iowa. (Jeff Cook/Quad-City Times)
(QC TIMES) Two months after Roger Lennon died, the woman who took care of him for more than a dozen years got a bill in the mail. The state of Iowa said the Bettendorf veteran owes almost $300,000 for the medical care he received in the state-run veterans home.
“I called them and said, ‘Is this a joke?'” Sarah Miller said. “Who has that kind of money? And I was with Roger every time he was signed into the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown. They never said anything about billing him after he passed.”
The spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, which runs Medicaid for the state, said Lennon should have known the state would pursue any remaining assets after his death.
“Everybody who gets Medicaid is told this is a government program for which we will be expecting repayment,” DHS spokesman Roger Munns said. “It’s not fair for taxpayers – you and me – to pay if there are assets.
“It’s not draconian. It’s not meant to be cruel.”
But that’s not how Miller sees it.
‘He went through hell’
Roger Lennon was shot in Vietnam.
In 1990, he was badly injured in a welding explosion in Bettendorf. After brain surgery, his ability to move changed dramatically. Most of the time, he was in a wheelchair.
“He could walk some with a quad cane, but he needed care,” said Miller, his companion of 20 years. “He went through hell.”
When he was awarded a modest settlement from the explosion, Lennon invested part of it. He and Miller put their money together to buy two rental properties, using the income as a retirement investment.
When Lennon lived – off and on – at the Veterans Home in Marshalltown, whatever money he made went to the state. He turned over his half of the rental income, $350, along with his veteran’s benefits to the home in Marshalltown.
Meanwhile, Miller took care of the two properties they owned together. Now, she said, the state is demanding half of their value after Lennon’s death on March 31.
“For the seven years Roger was in and out of Marshalltown, the houses were my expense,” she said. “I paid the property taxes, put in the septic system the county required a few years ago, and I put in a new furnace in one.
“None of those expenses, including the taxes, are necessary expenses, according to the state. The only so-called legitimate expense was the funeral. They want half the value of the houses. It doesn’t matter how much I saved the state for the 13 years I took care of him.”
One of the homes is valued at $42,920, she said, and the other is worth about $35,000. Both are in Bettendorf.
The letter from DHS, indicating a debt of $277,186.96 begins, “We have been informed of the death of the above person, and we wish to express our sincere condolences.”
The third paragraph, highlighted in bold, states, “This debt must be, and can only be, paid from anything that the individual owned or had an interest in at the time of death.”
Does she owe, or doesn’t she?
Munns said Miller “misinterpreted” letters from and phone calls with state officials.
“It’s obvious that the woman has misunderstood the state’s claim,” he said last week. “There was no instruction, for example, for her to sell her duplexes.”
Neither of the homes is a duplex.
Miller said she called the phone number on a letter from DHS and was transferred to an attorney for the state.
“He’s the one who told me I couldn’t use property taxes as a legitimate deduction,” she said. “He didn’t really say I had to sell the properties, but I have to give them half of what the properties are worth.
“I don’t have that kind of cash available. It’s not that much, but I don’t have it. How could you have that kind of cash laying around?”
Munns said the state will regard Miller as Lennon’s widow, classifying her as his common-law wife because of the number of years they spent together.
“She’ll be contacted by the state (asset) recovery people,” he said. “She’s scheduled to be called sometime next week. They’ll determine what her case will be.”
But Miller said the state officials she has talked to already have told her what will happen: She will be required to come up with about $40,000 to pay for a veteran’s health care that the veteran believed was a benefit he had earned.
“I was told to send them the money next week,” Miller said. “People should know what the state is doing. Poor Roger was so proud that he was a veteran, and the veterans were taking care of him. He was very proud of his military service. People should be outraged.”