Editorial Board, Lakeland Ledger
The concept of “retirement,” along with government social welfare programs to support old folks who no longer worked, dates to the 1880s. That’s when German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck concluded that a little socialism for the elderly — Germany set retirement its age at 70 — was better than blanket entitlement programs for all his constituents.
As Bismarck’s idea circulated across the Atlantic, Florida didn’t take long to catch on. The New York Times noted a few years ago that by 1910 middle-class retirees joined the wealthy in discovering the Sunshine State as an appealing place to live out their golden years. Retirement communities began popping up within the next two decades.
Thus, for a century Florida has marketed itself and catered to the elderly, becoming a top destination of elders seeking a retirement pasture.
But that influx of senior citizens made Florida a target-rich environment for hucksters, shysters and ne’er do wells out to con them — or harm them in other ways. And on occasion that abuse came from those entrusted to watch out for their interests.
Now, state Rep. Colleen Burton has joined an effort to better protect our seniors.
The Lakeland Republican has sponsored a bill that would toughen oversight of the state’s guardianship program for seniors, which is managed by the state Department of Elder Affairs.
Focus on this arm of the tiny agency began last summer after media reports surfaced about Rebecca Fierle, an Orlando-based guardian. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated her after one of her clients, Steven Stryker, 75, died from choking on food while hospitalized in Tampa. Fierle reportedly filed a “do not resuscitate” order, which precluded hospital staff from treating Stryker, without permission from either Stryker or his family.
Subsequently, an audit by Orange County determined Fierle had billed Advent Health more than $4 million over 10 years, double-billing the hospital system and court for the same services. Fierle also had clients in Volusia and Flagler counties, and after news of the Tampa case broke, Volusia County Circuit Judge Margaret Hudson started requiring that guardians seeking a DNR appear before her for an evidentiary hearing with medical testimony and notice to the ward’s family.
A few months before Stryker’s case became news, the website RealClearInvestigations.com reported on Lillie White, an 88-year-old from Palm Coast. During an August 2016 doctor’s appointment, while her niece remained in the waiting room, a guardian took White and declined to say where she went. Two years later White’s family learned that her sole granddaughter, who had been cut out of White’s will, had persuaded a judge White needed guardianship.
White, who was worth $4 million, was housed in an assisted living facility 35 miles from home. The guardian, without White’s family’s knowledge, sold her house and some of her other assets to pay the fees of the guardian as well as a court-appointed lawyer and other people overseeing her case.
WFTS in Tampa recently reported on a Pinellas County guardian charged with draining her 92-year-old client’s bank account of $541,000 in just 10 months. She had convinced him to grant her power of attorney over his affairs and proceeded to pay herself $1,600 a day.
Meanwhile, the state’s director of the program resigned last year amid a lengthy backlog complaints about guardians — which the Department of Elder Affairs now says has been addressed.
In response, Burton and Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, have filed bills that will strengthen protections for the more than 3,800 Floridians managed by guardians. Included in the proposals are requirements that:
- Judges look more closely at possible conflicts of interest and other disqualifying factors before appointing a guardian;
- Guardians seek court approval for DNR orders, and be prohibited from seeking their own appointment;
- Guardians could not recieve bonuses, referral fees, commissions or other potential kickbacks from service providers.
We believe that most of the state’s 500-plus guardians are professional, conscientious, devoted to the best interests of their wards and law-abiding.
But as noted above, some are not. In order to protect Florida’s elderly who need this service, as well as the state’s reputation as a haven for senior citizens, we must have stricter rules governing this program. For working for that, we applaud Rep. Burton and Sen. Passidomo.
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Bogus 'guardians' steal money, sometimes life | Opinion