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For Seniors : Writer Turns Her Passion Toward Health Initiative

October 02, 1994|LINDA FELDMAN

People thought she was dead. When a friend called to verify, instead of responding with a witty quip--not out of character for this two-time Emmy-winning comedy writer--she got depressed.

But not for long.

Lila Garrett is alive and well and wants everyone else to be that way too. That's why she decided to chair the Westside Coalition for Proposition 186--the Health Security Act. As for the premature news of her demise, it's her old life that's gone, not Lila Garrett herself.

"Hearing that people thought I was dead made me do something which I rarely do--contemplate my life," she says in her trademark powerful delivery. "I'm single. I'm not working in the business. And I'm not making enormous waves anymore. In other words, according to (the friend's) image of me, I was dead."

I've known Lila Garrett for almost 15 years. She's as vulnerable as she is impenetrable, emotional as she is unsentimental. She's never boring. She can be hilariously funny and downright infuriating. She's known as difficult by people who love her and imperious by those who don't.

"When a woman is described as difficult it usually means she's too assertive, too opinionated, too something or other which is never too anything for a man," she said.

Garrett, who declines to give her age but admits to being eligible for Medicare, was the first woman to write, produce and direct her own television movie. She has received, besides the two Emmys, the Writer's Guild Award and a New York International Film Festival Award.

"Being a pioneer is overrated," she said.

Because Hollywood has notoriously been anti-elder, she also has involved herself in teaching and politics. She teaches writing at UCLA Extension, but politics are the constant in her life.

She can't be talked out of her opinion about the need for gun control or talked into blaming immigrants for the problems of society. Nor can she be persuaded that health care is a right, not a privilege.

But, agree with her or not, when Garrett is involved in a cause things happen. In her view, her so-called death started 10 years ago when she lost a few big battles.

"I ended a meaningful long-term relationship with a man I was living with for 17 years, which I do not want to discuss, and I lost a battle with the Writer's Guild West over the issue of writers getting just compensation from the rental and sale of videos," she said. "I felt we were being sold out by a group of elite self-serving representatives of the Guild who did not represent the writers as a whole."

Garrett also lost an election as vice president of the Guild and was "brutalized," she says, in a Times article in which she feels she was characterized as a "very wealthy woman talking about the rank and file while she luxuriated in a Malibu beach house."

She is unapologetic about living well and feels that "those of us who have enough shouldn't be made poorer but we should all fight for everyone else to be richer. . . . Besides, it was a rented beach house."

After losing the fight with the Guild, Garrett decided to move out of the storm and to carefully consider what battles to fight next. Although she remained involved in Democratic Party politics, she said she hasn't felt the classic Garrett passion for any issue until Proposition 186, which would provide cradle-to-grave health insurance for all Californians by imposing taxes and, most likely, folding in existing government financing.

There's no question in her mind that securing health care for everyone is a cause worth her getting back into the fray.

"It boggles my mind that the United States and South Africa are the only countries which do not have some sort of universal government-run health care," she said. "It's disgraceful that Congress is not going to pass some health care reform this year because it was their obligation to the people of this country to do so. They were bought off."

According to a recent report by Citizen Action, a consumer research group, special interests--notably health and insurance industries and the American Medical Assn.--spent more than $100 million in less than two years on lobbying, advertising and direct contributions to members of Congress to defeat health care reform.

But Proposition 186--the Health Security Act--is California's answer to solving a human problem that Congress either doesn't acknowledge or refuses to act on. It would replace insurance premiums and deductibles with a payroll tax (4.4% to 8.9%, depending on the number of employees), an income tax (2.5% on all taxable income after deductions) and a $1-per-pack cigarette tax, and everyone who is a legal resident of California would be covered.

If Proposition 186 passes, senior citizens would be especially affected. It provides coverage for long-term care (for both nursing home and at-home care) and prescription drugs. The elderly will no longer have to pay the $400 deductible, the 20% co-payment, the Part B premium or purchase a Medi-Gap policy.

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