Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Guardianship, Reverse Mortgage Fraud, and Politicians Posing as Health Care Workers

Advocacy Update
There’s lots happening on the advocacy front, and I’m a bit behind. But here goes:

Guardianship Reform: The National Scene
Last week, Senator Gordon H. Smith (R-OR) released Guardianship for the Elderly: Protecting the Rights and Welfare of Seniors with Reduced Capacity, a report on the role of the feds in overseeing the guardianship system. The report was based on responses to a call for papers Smith issued following a 2006 Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing. The hearing had followed a flurry of negative reports about guardianship, including the findings of a GAO report and a scathing 2005 Los Angeles Times series that exposed blatant abuses by professional conservators (California parlance for guardians) and negligence by courts in monitoring them. Widespread media coverage about philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor, whose son was charged with looting her estate while acting as her guardian, had also brought additional attention to the problem.

According to the report, federal actions that warrant consideration include uniform federal standards for guardianship and an enforcement mechanism; a national guardianship office, possibly administered through the Department of Justice, to promote best practices, training standards, data collection, and oversight; increased coordination among the multiple government agencies that are involved including the Social Security Administration, Department of Justice, and Department of Health and Human Services; an infusion of federal funds to boost local court supervision programs; a national system of data collection and research; improved regulation and oversight of private and professional guardianship entities; and greater attention to guaranteeing the safety and due process rights of incapacitated seniors under guardianship. Specific areas of need include ensuring the right to counsel, independent medical and physical examinations, and the right to petition the court for guardianship termination. A full copy of the report is available at www.aging.senate.gov/minority or by calling 202-228-5862.

Smith’s report was released in conjunction with the publication of Guarding the Guardians: Promising Practices for Court Monitoring by Naomi Karp of the AARP Public Policy Institute and Erica Wood of the ABA’s Commission on Law and Aging. This resource for courts and policy-makers is a follow-up to Guardianship Monitoring: A National Survey of Court Practices, a 2006 report by Karp and Wood. The first report highlighted the results of a 2005 national survey of judges, court managers, guardians, elder law attorneys, and advocates. It called for better reporting by guardians (including prospective, or forward-looking, plans to show how they will manage the affairs of those they supervise); improved verification of reports; the use of technology for greater efficiency; and more resources devoted to monitoring. Part 1 is available at AARP's Web site.

The follow-up report (also available online on AARP's Web site), showcases specific practices, examples of which include:

• Ramsey County, MN has an e-filing system, which not only allows guardians to file their annual accountings online, but has built-in red flags to identify irregularities that bear further investigation

• Maricopa County, AZ uses fiduciary arrest warrants when necessary. Arizona’s guardianship certification program also performs intensive random audits of professional guardians.

• Suffolk County, NY has adopted a “problem-solving restorative jurisprudence approach to guardianship,” which includes mediation, a resource coordinator, volunteer advocates and the ability to integrate all pending cases involving the incapacitated person, including divorces, evictions and other matters.

The follow-up report even provides tips on how to spot “guardianships going bad"; examples of how courts handle specific situations like guardians’ failure to file reports; and ideas for how to raise and leverage funds for court monitoring.

According to Naomi Karp, “Their innovations show that effective oversight is more a matter of will than of money. It's not really rocket science and it's not really expensive. In all cases, there's at least one person who's a real visionary who is dedicated to getting it done."

And, In California:
As described in an earlier post (see Feel Good Laws or Real Reform?), the LA Times expose’ on private professional conservators prompted California last year to enact a package of laws to reform guardianship. Although courts were promised new funds to implement the provisions, with some having already hired additional staff to do so, the promised funding never came. Courts are doing their best to make due in the meantime and are hopeful that the state will honor its commitment next year.

Reverse Mortgages
In an email with the subject line “Mr. Cole Goes to Washington,” Shawna Reeves Nourzaie of the Fair Lending Project for Seniors of the Council on Aging Silicon Valley alerted me to the December 12 Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing “Reverse Mortgages: Polishing not Tarnishing the Golden Years.” Mr. Cole is our very own Prescott Cole of the San Francisco-based California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, who was the lead witness. The hearing was prompted at least in part by lawsuits filed against "reverse mortgage specialist" company Financial Freedom. Although invited, Financial Freedom was not represented.

In a bizarre twist, Financial Freedom has since announced that the company did not make the loan that was the subject of damning testimony by panel witness Carol Anthony, who claimed that the company had wheedled her elderly mother into an expensive and inappropriate loan. Rather, Financial Freedom reps claim that the company simply purchased the loan after it had been closed by the original lender, Senior Freedom Corporation Funding. They blamed the confusion on the similarity of the names. But, as Shawna points out, even so, one might wonder what responsibility loan purchasers have in making sure that the loans they buy were not procured by fraud.

Also during the hearing, AARP unveiled its in-depth study of the Reverse Mortgage industry, highlighting many of the sales practice abuses directed towards seniors. You can view a webcast of the hearing, which was chaired by Committee Member, Claire McCaskill (D-MO), at http://aging.senate.gov/

Candidates Learn from Health Care Workers
Congressional and presidential hopefuls got a chance to experience first hand (well, sort of) what life is like for home care workers, nursing home aides, and other health workers as part of the “Walk a Day in My Shoes” campaign sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The campaign is “about making sure politicians truly know what the real world is like for the rest of us.” You can watch Hillary walk in the shoes of a registered nurse, Obama walk in the shoes of a home care worker, and Edwards walk in the shoes of a nursing home worker. Also shown walking the halls of a nursing home is U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken, who’s career I’ve been following since well before his Saturday Night Live days when my sister and I took a filmmaking class with him in the 60s. Footage of the candidates’ visits is available at SEIU’s Web site. (The Nerenberg/Franken productions were lost or destroyed by our mom.)

Looking for a Stocking Stuffer?
Springer Publishing has agreed to provide my blog and Web site readers with a 30% discount on my book, Elder Abuse Prevention: Emerging Issues and Promising Strategies, from tomorrow through the end of the year. They tell me the book will be released "any second." To get the discount, click on the icon that appears on the right or from my Web site at http://lisanerenberg.com/.

Happy Holidays
At the rate I’m going, this may be my last posting for 2007. So, Happy New Year to all and keep up the terrific work!