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Brengola-sorrentino v. Dep't of Pub. Aid





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. James C. Murray, Judge, presiding.


In July 1982, while a patient at Swedish Covenant Hospital, Rosalia Brengola-Sorrentino (plaintiff) applied for financial assistance under the Aid to the Medically Indigent Program (AMI) of the Public Aid Code (Code) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 23, par. 7-1 et seq.). Plaintiff was then a visitor to the United States from her native Italy. She resided with her daughter and son-in-law at the time of her illness.

Upon receipt of her application, the Cook County Department of Public Aid (county department) mailed to plaintiff a request for financial verification and for an interview. Because plaintiff was still hospitalized and not fluent in the English language, her daughter telephoned the county department, and spoke with the caseworker assigned to plaintiff's case. The daughter advised the caseworker that plaintiff had no insurance or other assets and that plaintiff's bank account in Italy had been closed. Plaintiff's sole income was approximately $450 per month from her deceased husband's Italian pension program.

Following the telephone interview with plaintiff's daughter, the county department mailed to plaintiff a form requesting documentation of the status of plaintiff's bank account(s). In response, plaintiff's son-in-law (Wlandis) forwarded to the county department a statement from the Chicago branch of the National Bank of Greece, which stated that Wlandis had an account there with the balance of some $6,600. Wlandis enclosed a handwritten statement which advised in part:

"Mrs. Rosalia Brengola-Sorrentino had from [her daughter and son-in-law] the sum of $7,000 as a gift to be used for her hip replacement surgery. * * * [S]he spent only $2,000.00 as follows:

The [remaining] $5,000.00 are kept by me in my checking account." *fn1

In August 1982, the county department denied plaintiff's application for benefits under AMI, finding that "the value of your assets exceeds the maximum allowed by agency standards."

Plaintiff appealed the denial of the county department to the Illinois Department of Public Aid (Department) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 23, par. 11-8 et seq.). At the administrative hearing held on her appeal, plaintiff was not present, but she was represented by counsel and Wlandis was also present. At that hearing the caseworker explained that under Department regulations, plaintiff would be eligible for AMI only in the event she had "non-exempt assets" of less than $400. The caseworker concluded that the documents provided by Wlandis and his verbal statements to her demonstrated that plaintiff had "available" to her the $5,000 gift from Wlandis and his wife, and, therefore, plaintiff was not financially eligible for AMI.

Wlandis testified that the account at the National Bank of Greece was in his own name only, and that he had intended to give the money therein to his mother-in-law only in the event no other funds were available to her to help defray medical expenses. Wlandis also stated that he had paid several thousand dollars in medical bills incurred by his mother-in-law on previous occasions and that plaintiff's present outstanding medical bill totaled $15,000. Following this testimony, plaintiff's attorney argues that the money allegedly given plaintiff by Wlandis should not be considered by the Department to be plaintiff's asset. He urged that the money was not a "legal" gift, because there was no evidence that, under Illinois law, a valid inter vivos gift had occurred. Plaintiff's attorney contended that the Department could not properly conclude that those funds were, in fact, an asset available to plaintiff.

In September 1982, the Illinois Department affirmed the decision of the county department and found plaintiff ineligible for AMI. Plaintiff filed a complaint for administrative review in the circuit court. The trial court affirmed the Department's decision, and plaintiff filed a timely notice of appeal.

Plaintiff contends that: (1) the Department's determination that she was ineligible for AMI benefits because she had resources available to her in excess of $400 was against the manifest weight of the evidence; (2) the Department's regulations governing eligibility for AMI are contrary to the provisions of the Code; and, (3) the Department's policy which allows AMI applicants to "reduce" their "excess assets" while their application is pending violates equal protection.

Before weighing plaintiff's contentions, it is helpful to review portions of the Code and Department regulations issued thereunder. Among the purposes of the Illinois Public Aid Code is "the alleviation and prevention of poverty and thereby to protect and promote the health and welfare of all people of this State." (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 23, par. 1-1.) The Code establishes several types of programs for assisting needy persons; AMI is one such program.

Article VII of the Code encompasses the AMI program. Section 7-1 therein provides, in part:

"Eligibility requirements. Aid in meeting the costs of necessary medical * * * care, or burial shall be given under this Article to or on behalf of any person who meets the eligibility conditions of Sections 7-1.1 ...

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