Can-Collecting Senior Says 'No' to Taxpayer Support for Drugs; Stranger Prompts Gore to Call on Retiree

By Scott Hogenson | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - Winifred Skinner says she enjoys picking up cans and doesn't want taxpayers to pay for her prescription drugs.

The 79-year old retiree from Des Moines, Iowa who was catapulted to fame when she told Vice President Al Gore that she collected empty aluminum cans to help supplement her income also said she was unexpectedly prompted to speak from the audience when she attended a Gore campaign event in Iowa Tuesday and took a poke at talk show host Rush Limbaugh for some of his comments.

Although Skinner has become something of a poster-person for Gore's prescription drug plan, she made it clear she's not interested in federal assistance. "No, no, I don't want the taxpayers to pay for my medicine," Skinner said in an interview with Thursday.

"I'm a proud person and I want to earn it and I want to do it on my own," said Skinner. "I don't accept charity and I don't get food stamps. I qualify, but I don't get them because I don't want the taxpayers to support me."

Skinner said she had no intention of attending the Gore campaign event in Altoona, Iowa until an official with the local United Auto Workers union invited her. Similarly, her comments about can collecting weren't made until a stranger in the crowd prompted both her and Gore.

"A lady from the UAW office that I've known for a long time said that Al Gore's going to be in town, do you want to go? And I said 'I can't, my car's in the shed,' and she said 'well, if you want to go, I'll come and take you,' and I said 'only if you guarantee me I get to talk with Al Gore,'" explained Skinner, a former president of UAW Local 1672 in Des Moines.

According to Skinner, she never was promised a meeting with Gore, but she did try to meet him through her own efforts. She was not successful, but did gain entry to the community center where Gore was speaking. "I asked everybody I saw 'how do I get to see Al Gore?' and that was for 15 or 20 minutes, I walked through there trying to find somebody that had some authority that would let me talk with Al Gore," said Skinner.

As the event continued, Skinner said she had no expectation of speaking with the vice president. "After (Gore) got done with his speech and everything, he opened it up for questions and I thought, well, I don't have a question to ask, so I just sat there and let him answer," said Skinner.

But her fortunes quickly changed, thanks to a stranger in the crowd. "And then there was a nice colored gentleman setting over there and he stood up and he said 'I think that lady in the white hair, I think she has something to say,'" said Skinner. "So then Al Gore called on me and I stood up and then I gave him the story," of her can collecting.

Skinner said she has no idea who pointed her out to the vice president. "I don't know him, I never saw him before and I don't know his name," said Skinner. "I probably wouldn't know him if I see him again."

Questions have been raised as to whether Skinner was somehow planted in the audience to help Gore promote his prescription drug plan and whether the UAW played any part in the episode.

There's little question that prescription drugs take a chunk out of Skinner's retirement income. She said she pays between $200 and $220 each month for her blood pressure medication and what Skinner calls "anxiety pills," prescribed by her doctor. "What I want is something so the prescriptions won't be quite so high," said Skinner. "I don't see any sense in (high prices) myself. Of course, I'm not manufacturing them."

Skinner said her retirement income includes $782 each month in Social Security benefits and a UAW-negotiated pension of $129.59 each month, $111.30 of which is spent to pay for a Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurance policy, which she said does not include a prescription drug benefit. Skinner said she wasn't sure if there was a health care plan available to her that includes prescription drugs. "I got the middle (plan). I had a choice of three. I didn't take the cheapest one and I didn't take the highest one."

Can collecting has been part of Skinner's routine for "about, oh, four, five, maybe six years." said Skinner. "You meet a lot of interesting people and I stop and talk to a lot of people and they stop me and some people save cans for me," said Skinner.

She explained that she collects cans on a route that covers a six-to-eight block radius of her home, saying that people who know her save aluminum cans and place them in bags for her to collect so she can claim the five-cents per can refund. "I made 90 cents this morning," Skinner said.

"I have made a little more than that. It depends on if it's the day that people will put out cans for me to pick up," said Skinner. "They have them in a bag and they tell me that 'those cans are for you.' No, I'm not digging through garbage cans."

Skinner also launched a broadside at talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who made some remarks about Skinner during a broadcast after the Gore campaign event. "I'm proud of what I do. I'm not ashamed of it and I'm not a bum like I hear Rush Limbaugh saying I am," said Skinner. "I wish he'd call me. If he does, he's met his match, I'll tell you that right now."

Limbaugh referred to Skinner as a "hobo," according to the broadcaster's staff. However, the talk show host Thursday clarified his remark and praised the woman for her "rugged individuality."