As lawmakers enter the final days of the regular legislative session, they have not resolved proposals aimed at shielding older Floridians from predatory private guardians who take control of the seniors' assets.
Nonetheless, Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican and sponsor of one of the guardianship bills (SB 1226), calls it her top priority of the session. Her bill would charge the state Department of Elder Affairs with certifying, overseeing and disciplining professional guardians who abuse their trust. It would also create a registry of professional guardians in each judicial circuit.
The bill was sparked, Detert said, by a series in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which concluded that "monitoring elders and tapping their assets is a growth business: In 2003, there were 23 registered professional guardians in Florida, according to the (Department of Elder Affairs). Today there are more than 440 - an increase greater than 1,800 percent in 11 years."
Currently, Detert said, the Department of Elder Affairs oversees the state's 51 public guardians, who are assigned to indigent seniors, but there is little to stop unprincipled professional guardians from charging steep rates for services and running through wards' assets.
"This is a totally unregulated industry," Detert said on the Senate floor Monday afternoon, as her bill was readied for a final vote as soon as Tuesday.
The senator said she's heard from constituents about private guardians who drain "mostly wealthy elderly folks" of their life savings --- even in cases where the seniors had children who looked after them before the guardians entered the picture.
For instance, Detert said, one woman ferried her mother on errands and helped with bills until a dispute between the siblings ended with a private guardian in charge of the mother's affairs.
"All the things the daughter did for her mom --- took care of the mail, paid the bills --- now the guardian's doing it, and they charge $100 an hour to open your mail, make your doctor's appointment," Detert said. "And even when the relatives visit, they have to pay $100 an hour for the guardian to sit there while they visit the mom."
Senate committee hearings on the bill were full of similar tales. But the House version (HB 1225), sponsored by Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, has been stuck in the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee for more than a month after getting unanimous approval from the Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee.
Rep. Matt Hudson, a Naples Republican and chairman of the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee, said that's because the cost of the bill was expected to be more than three times as much as it is now.
"It was not a matter of policy," Hudson said. "It was simply a matter of fiscal resources. …. Frankly, I just didn't have the money to be able to do it."
In mid-March, Detert said, the Department of Elder Affairs had estimated the cost of her bill at $3 million for 40 full-time employees. But last week, she succeeded in amending the measure to provide six full-time positions and $821,670 in recurring general revenue funds for Fiscal Year 2015-2016.
Hudson praised Detert and Ahern for working with the Department of Elder Affairs to bring the cost down.
"(But) here we are, a handful of days before the end of session, and while I appreciate that they've worked hard to get a bill in good position that way, the reality is, we stopped meeting as a committee weeks ago," Hudson said.
But Ahern said he hasn't given up.
"The senator did her job…the governor's on board, so I'm looking for away to --- maybe through the (House) appropriations chair, Richard Corcoran, if he can find a million dollars somewhere, then we could possibly attach it to a bill of similar type,'' Ahern said.
That could be a bill (HB 5), which passed the House last week and could come up for a Senate vote Tuesday.
The bill would require advance notice before hearings on the appointment of emergency temporary guardians. It would also allow the mediation of guardianship disputes among family members and require the reporting of incidents of abuse, neglect and exploitation of wards by guardians.
But the Senate added an amendment that was not in the version that passed the House. Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican who proposed the amendment, said in an email that it "preserves the good work of an organization in my district," the Sun City Center. "It is crafted to allow certain not-for-profits to provide power of attorney services free of charge to those residing in senior communities. As safeguards, criminal history background checks and credit history checks will be required of all volunteers who interact with clients. The service is strictly voluntary and seeks to help seniors stay independent longer."
House sponsor Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said she and Lee had collaborated on the amendment and that she was satisfied with the safeguard it provides.
"Those are our vulnerable citizens," Passidomo said. "They're being abused, financially and in many other ways, unfortunately, by some bad actors. And we need to clamp down on them --- particularly making criminal penalties on those that will exploit our elderly."