In all, a state panel suggested 55 ways to shore up the Nebraska courts' guardian and conservator system to protect the health and wealth of the vulnerable.
All were issued in the wake of The World-Herald series that revealed shoddy oversight of those who are supposed to watch over the elderly and incapacitated.
But hovering over a state committee's far-ranging proposals was what Friday's report didn't recommend:
How to pay for the changes. How much they would cost. And where that funding would come from.
After an intense five months of studying the issue, the 14-member committee left those heavy questions for a later date.
For now, members say, they wanted the courts and the Legislature to look at swift, low-cost measures.
In fact, many of the recommendations were simply reinforcements of practices that judges, attorneys and volunteer guardians and conservators were supposed to be doing all along.
“It's not a sprint, it's a marathon,” said Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican, who appointed the committee in April after reading The World-Herald series detailing hundreds of thousands of dollars in thefts from wards.
Statewide, more than 12,400 incapacitated Nebraskans currently have a guardian to oversee their health, a conservator to oversee their wealth or a guardian-conservator to do both.
Douglas County has the most wards (3,582), followed by Lancaster County (1,625) and Sarpy County (626). Twelve other county courts each oversee more than 100 wards.
Heavican praised what he called the committee's “sensible” short-term recommendations.
Among them, the committee called on the courts to:
Ÿ Perform background checks on anyone who wants to serve as a guardian or conservator, paying particular attention to any financial judgments against them.
Ÿ Create a statewide database of guardians and conservators.
Ÿ Require each conservator to post bond insurance on estates over $10,000.
Ÿ Ban the use of debit/ATM cards and have police alert court clerks to bank reports detailing “suspicious” account activities.
Ÿ Require quicker filing of inventories of wards' assets — and require that such inventories be sent to wards' family members.
“Those kinds of things are very practical and involve a lot of common sense,” Heavican said, “and are things that we can implement very quickly.”
[T]he report called on the Legislature to establish a committee and spend 2011 looking at the potential cost of setting up a public guardian system.
State Sen. John Wightman of Lexington, chairman of the review committee, estimated that such a statewide office eventually could cost $500,000 to $1 million a year.
But without a public office, Wightman said, the burden will only increase on the volunteers who serve as guardians, even as auditors.
“Nebraska has the opportunity to learn from ... the other states as to how to design an office that could best leverage public/private resources to meet this increasing need,” the report said.
The committee made no recommendations on a few issues exposed in The World-Herald series:
Ÿ Appointing two people to a case, one to oversee the ward's physical welfare and another to oversee his financial welfare.
Ÿ Appointing two independent conservators so that both have to sign off on bill payments, a practice accountants recommend.
Ÿ Requiring conservators to file accountings more often than once a year.
Ÿ Allowing urban judges to specialize in guardian law.
The chief justice said he hopes to implement many of the committee's recommended practices by 2011. Those that require a law change will be forwarded to the Legislature for consideration in the 2011 session, he said.
Heavican said he also will consider the committee's final recommendation to him: formation of an ongoing commission to monitor courts' performance and national trends.
Nationwide, the issue will become even more pressing as the elderly population is expected to exceed 71 million by 2030 — more than double the number in 2000.
“These issues are going to become more and more important with the huge number of retiring baby boomers,” Heavican said. “That alone is enough to remind us that we have to keep focused and not give up the fight.”
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