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By Arthur Z. Schwartz

Vija Vetra, a Latvian dancer, is the oldest resident of Westbeth. She is 97 years old. Yet she still travels around the world to perform, at least before COVID shut the world down.

When we last wrote about Vija in WestView we described how she had been cheated out of her life savings, all of $3000, by scammers who told her that they were from the Social Security Administration, and that she had to pay $3000 to avoid prosecution for fraud committed by someone using her Social Security number. Unfortunately, Vija fell for it, and as 2020 started she was penniless.

Vija called the Social Security Administration to ask them whether there was anything she could do. Someone took the whole story from her and told her they had no responsibility. 

Vija moved to this country after she was 65, having lived in Europe until then. She discovered when she was here that she was eligible for a program called SSI (Supplemental Security Income), a small payment from the Federal government to seniors not eligible for Social Security. Over the years, thanks to the reasonable rents for artists at Westbeth, Vija was able to live on a budget of less than $1000 per month, and have a little for her annual travel to India. She had also save $3000 in what she called her “burial account.” This was the money that the thieves took. 

There is a rule under SSI. A recipient may not have more than $3000 in savings (a very cruel requirement). The Social Security rep that Veja spoke to decided to begin an investigation -not into the fraudsters, but into Vija. Just before the COVID lockdown Vija got a notice—she had improperly had over $3000 in her account and her SSI was being stopped. Not only that, the Government wanted $6000 back. And they notified the State of New York, which cut off Vija’s Medicaid coverage. 

Vija called George Capsis, who sent her to me. We met just before the COVID lockdown, and from the safe perch of my home office, I put together an appeal that not only shamed the Social Security bureaucrats, but which showed that they were improperly applying the law. Vija got a notice that she would have a hearing in April, and that her benefits would continue until her appeal was decided. A similar appeal with Medicaid got a similar response.

Vija and I spoke a lot on the phone, and passed papers through the Westbeth doorman. 

In mid-April I called and asked how her hearing would proceed. I was told that the Social Security Administration had reviewed the appeal and had reversed their position. Several weeks later Medicaid followed suit. Vija was safe- from her own government!

Next month in WestView we will start a Go Fund Me campaign to replace Veja’s lost savings.

Arthur Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village.

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