The legislation, by then-State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, arose after a private guardian in Gering was accused of embezzling a total of $600,000 from 688 wards, in 60 Nebraska counties, who had been assigned her by the courts.
Discussion of the bill highlighted how the state’s number of guardians fell far short of the need, compelling Nebraska courts to appoint volunteers who often took on heavy caseloads.
Twenty publicly funded guardians currently serve 237 adults. Sometime this year, the public guardianship program will likely reach the maximum total of 300 wards allowed under the 2014 law.
In anticipation, the state Office of Public Guardian says it will launch a pilot waiting list, so people can be assigned a guardian, when available, based on the severity of the situation.
This is an eminently worthwhile program, and Nebraska leaders should be attentive to the likely increased demand for it in coming years. Demographic projections in the office’s recent report to the Legislature and Nebraska Supreme Court show why.
Nebraska had 240,000 residents over age 65 in 2010, and by 2030, the number is projected to increase to 400,000. A significant portion of those adults will likely have no trusted relative or friend to serve as a guardian, the report says.
The report highlighted various challenges for the public guardianship program. Lawmakers at the state or federal level should look to see whether legislative adjustments or administrative action could help address some of the obstacles.
For example, they should consider taking steps to:
» Clarify the rights and responsibilities of guardians when a ward is receiving health care, to lessen uncertainty for medical staff.
» Help wards better understand their opportunities for free or reduced-cost legal services when available.
» Improve a person’s eligibility for Medicaid if he or she has been a victim of financial abuse by family members.
Michelle Chaffee, director of the Office of Public Guardian, notes that many Nebraskans served by her office once held well-paying jobs but now, in the wake of a health care crisis, find themselves in serious need for help with their financial affairs.
“Any of our Nebraska neighbors could end up being in need of public guardianship services,” she said.
The public guardian program serves a vital purpose. Nebraska leaders should be mindful to maintain it and make practical improvements when appropriate, to meet the long-term need.
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Editorial: More guardians are needed for Nebraska's vulnerable