Altogether, the Office of Professional and Public Guardians says it has been allocated $150,000 to pay for professional guardian investigations since 2016. It hasn’t been enough, and a backlog of incomplete probes has been building.
So this year, the agency asked for a little bit more -- $97,488, to be exact.
It was a rounding error in the context of Florida’s $91 billion budget. It amounted to asking for less than one-one thousandth of 1 percent of the state’s general revenue.
The Florida Legislature chose not to fund it.
The decision has infuriated advocates for the vulnerable senior citizens and disabled people who have been declared unable to care for themselves and are put at the mercy of the professional guardians who are given control over their lives -- and their money.
There are currently 75 investigations that haven’t yet been completed because of a lack of funding, said Sharon Bock, the elected clerk and comptroller for Palm Beach County whose office works with the state guardianship office on the probes.
“That means there are 75 wards out there who are vulnerable, and could be continually exploited, while we fight for a sliver of adequate funding,” she said.
State Rep. MaryLynn Magar, a Republican from Palm Beach County, chaired the House committee in charge of health-care spending, which refused to include the funding request in its budget. She did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails asking her why.
A spokesman for House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Republican from Miami, said legislators felt they had given the state’s guardianship office enough money already. He pointed out that the Legislature gave OPPG an extra $2.5 million in this year’s budget -- although that money is supposed to be used on additional public guardians to care for elderly and disabled wards who are too poor to pay for a professional guardian. There are more than 450 people unable to care for themselves on the waitlist for a public guardian.
"OPPG, it was felt by both the House and the Senate, could utilize less than 5 percent of that money to conduct the investigations,” said Fred Piccolo, the Oliva spokesman. “To allege resources were unavailable is simply untrue.”
When someone believes a professional guardian is abusing or exploiting the ward they were appointed to care for, they can file a complaint with OPPG. The state agency then does a preliminary screening and, if the complaint appears to have merit, it passes it on to one of a half-dozen county clerks’ offices around the state to conduct a full investigation. The scandal surrounding disgraced Orlando-based professional guardian Rebecca Fierle, who is now under criminal investigation after filing Do Not Resuscitate orders against the wishes of her wards, erupted after one such complaint was investigated by the clerk and comptroller in Okaloosa County.
Thorough probes are expensive. During the state’s 2017-18 fiscal year, OPPG, working with the alliance of clerks’ offices, says it investigated 128 cases statewide at an average cost of $1,289 per case. And the workload is growing as more baby boomers become infirm, more are placed into guardianship -- and more complaints are filed.
Activists were optimistic the agency would get money for investigations this year. Newly elected Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis included the $97,488 request in the proposed budget he recommended to the Legislature.
There didn’t appear to be anyone lobbying against it. Representatives for the Elder Law and Real Property, Probate and Trust Law sections of the Florida Bar, two of the most influential interest groups when it comes to guardianship law, said they did not oppose the request.
“We would never want them [OPPG] to not be funded,” said Gina Rossi-Scheiman, the executive director of the Florida State Guardianship Association, which represents professional guardians. “We want them to be fully able to do their job.”
The Florida Senate included the money in its budget. But the Florida House did not. And when the two chambers came together to work out a final budget -- a process known as “budget conference” -- the Senate dropped the issue early in the negotiations.
There was never any public discussion of the decision, as most of the Legislature’s budget conference decisions were made in private. The public meetings were formalities in which one side read out a list of decisions; meetings of the health-care budget conference committee -- which was responsible for more than $37 billion in spending -- lasted about 10 minutes each.
Budget conference is “always kind of done behind closed doors,” said Shannon Miller, a Gainesville attorney who co-chairs the legislative committee for the Elder Law Section of the Florida Bar. “We don’t have a lot of access to that process.”
The choice to not to spend an extra $97,488 on additional guardianship investigations was just one of thousands of spending decisions the Legislature made while building a $91 billion state budget. They also chose to spend $250,000 to subsidize a professional golf tournament at an Ocala development owned by a major Republican Party donor and $1 million to help build a facility for luxury corporate jet manufacturer Learjet Inc. (DeSantis vetoed the money for the golf tournament but approved the money for the Learjet facility.)
State Sen. Aaron Bean, a Republican from Nassau County who oversaw health-care spending in the Senate, said lawmakers don’t necessarily oppose spending an extra $97,488 to investigate allegations against professional guardians. But he said there’s an emphasis on finding common ground quickly during the final, frenetic days of session.
“There’s just so many things happening at once,” Bean said. “I don’t think it’s that we didn’t want it, it’s just that we’re trying to line up with the house and trying to get out of there.”
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Florida lawmakers refused to pay to investigate more guardians