Lawmaker revises bill in hopes of reuniting elderly couple

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Noboru and Elaine Kawamoto have been married for 67 years but the law has forced them to live apart.

Noboru lives in a care home and even though Elaine wants to live there too, she can’t.

The law requires the care home to leave a bed open for someone who is on Medicaid, and the couple has enough money to pay for the services, so they do not qualify for Medicaid.

Some say these are unintended consequences of the law. A lawmaker says he’s making changes to a bill so it can satisfy everyone involved.

The Kawamotos were living in an assisted living facility when his health deteriorated about a year and a half ago. Because he needs constant care, he was moved to a care home in Kaneohe.

Community care foster homes are allowed three clients, and two of them have to be on Medicaid. Both Noboru and Elaine are private pay clients, meaning they pay for their own.

It’s a tough blow for the family.

“I didn’t know we had this kind of regulation that we cannot be in the same care home,” Noboru said.

“She misses my dad,” said their son, Norman Kawamoto. “I can’t get her down here as often as I’d like. It’s a long ride. She gets very exhausted.”

The only time Elaine and Noboru get to see each other now is only when she comes to visit — once every couple of weeks, about two hours at a time.

Rep. John Mizuno tried to pass a bill to get a waiver for the Kawamotos last year and the bill stalled. He tried with another bill this year, House Bill 600, and it stalled again.

He says it’s because legislators are concerned that it might allow care homes to take in too may private pay clients because they would make more money, and there wouldn’t be enough beds for those on Medicaid.

“If we open the flood gates, what’s going to happen is that it could destroy the Medicaid industry, because you have a number of private pays going to Medicaid care homes because it’s a little less. It’s a little cheaper,” he said.

“Right now they have Medicaid openings in care homes, so the notion that somehow this is going to destroy the whole system, I think doesn’t make sense,” said Lou Erteschik of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center.

Mizuno is planning to change the bill to allow for a waiver only to couples who are married or in civil unions. The waiver period would be for six months. After that, the bill would allow the state departments of health and human services to grant exemptions.

The Kawamotos can only hope it happens soon.

“I don’t know how much they’ve got left together, but they would like to be together in their final years,” said Norman Kawamoto.

Mizuno was able to get a similar waiver for a Hawaii Island couple in 2009, but that no longer applies to this case.

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