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Postal Service Rules Treat Nursing Home Residents Like Prison Inmates

March 25, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Postal Service won’t honor nursing home residents’ requests to automatically forward their mail when they move, a policy that advocates say deprives well-traveled residents of some letters and treats them ″like inmates.″

While other people may submit change-of-address cards to the local post office, nursing home residents - like prisoners - must rely on the institution to write their new address on individual letters.

The policy is being questioned by senior citizen advocates in Florida and Pennsylvania, and by members of a Senate panel.

Since residents of a nursing home are at the same address, the Postal Service says the home should be ″the agent″ of their mail. The mail is delivered in bulk, like at a prison, and then distributed.

Allowing nursing home residents to file address forwarding cards ″would mean the person doing the sorting in the postal facility has to have a record of each person in the nursing home, where there may be quite a deal of turnover - not so much in moving but in departing this Earth,″ Postal Service spokesman Lou Eberhardt said in an interview.

When a resident moves, Eberhardt said, the nursing home need only write the new address on letters, and the Postal Service will re-deliver the mail for free.

″I think it represents a miniscule problem for everyone concerned,″ Eberhardt said. ″If we didn’t forward mail free of charge, it would then be an additional irritant. It’s probably a very short period of time before correspondents are advised that the person has moved from one institution to another.″

But Sister Mary Gregoria Rush of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., has been writing to the postmaster general and members of Congress to try to get the policy changed.

″I don’t think a lot of people are aware of this,″ Sister Rush said. ″Nursing home residents are treated like inmates, like they were in jail or something.″

She recalled the case of Virginia Killilae, a 96-year-old former publicist for the Ringling Bros. Circus whose mail did not all follow her when she transferred from one Florida nursing home to another.

Some of the letters were ″returned to sender″ because the post office did not accept a forwarding address card and the institution was not always cooperative, Sister Rush said.

″This lady had traveled all over the United States, and she had all her mail stacked up and the date she received it and answered it. But she spent many hours crying because she was so lonely,″ Sister Rush said. ″If I were a friend writing to a 96-year-old and I got ‘Return to Sender,’ I’d assume she was dead.″

When a nursing home was shut down by Pennsylvania officials last year, the state worked out a deal under which the Area Agency on Aging agreed to ensure that mail found its way to the 30 displaced residents. The federally funded AAA sponsors senior citizen programs.

″There have been other individual cases, but this presented significant problems because of an absentee owner,″ said Daniel Greenawalt, a state ombudsman on behalf of the elderly. ″But that wasn’t a long-term resolution because there is no mandate or special funding to do that.″

″It would be much better if the post office could treat the nursing home residents like any other citizens,″ he said.

Republican staff members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging recently prepared a memorandum concluding that the Postal Service policy ″cannot be justified by arguments for the convenience or efficiency of the institution or the post office.″

As a result, Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., the panel’s ranking Republican, told Postmaster General Anthony Frank in a letter last week: ″Mail service provides nursing home and mental health facility residents with important links to the outside world. I question whther these individuals should be classified with inmates, who have lost important civil rights, or with short- term hospital patients and other persons who maintain permanent addresses in the community.″

Heinz’s letter is being considered by officials in the rates and forwarding section of the Postal Service, according to Eberhardt.

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