The agency that oversees Florida’s guardians is asking the Legislature to nearly double its budget for next year — an increase of roughly $6.5 million — in part to fund more investigations and to track guardianship cases.
The Florida Office of Public and Professional Guardians budget request, released Tuesday, follows a meeting the previous day between Florida Department of Elder Affairs Secretary Richard Prudom, legislative leaders, judges, guardianship trade groups and attorneys.
At that meeting, some lawmakers said more money for the guardianship office was not necessarily the answer.
Although reporters were not permitted to attend the meeting, participants said they discussed changes in the guardianship system, following a series of investigations into the conduct of Orlando guardian Rebecca Fierle. Prudom said the additional funds will cover an expected increase in investigations and administrative costs to handle the workload.
“Of the 550 professional guardians, I would say 99 percent do a fantastic job,” Prudom said. “However, just one egregious act is too many, and I think that’s something we, the state, need to look at. When professional guardians operate, we need to make sure they abide by the standards of practice.”
Investigators have said Fierle was responsible for more than 400 wards — people deemed by a judge to be incapable of making decisions about their health care or finances — and routinely filed “do not resuscitate” orders without court oversight. Fierle’s practices came under scrutiny after a ward of hers died at a Tampa hospital, where staff were unable to attempt life-saving measures due to a DNR order the ward did not want.
Tuesday’s budget request will be considered by lawmakers during the legislative session early next year. If approved, it would bump the overall spending for the state guardianship office from a little over $7 million this year to just shy of $13.5 million next year.
But Dr. Sam Sugar, a leading critic of Florida’s guardianship system, claimed the increase would merely throw good money after bad.
“The Office of Public and Professional Guardians is a failed experiment that should be killed,” said Sugar, a South Florida internal medicine specialist who founded the nonprofit Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship.
“No amount of budget increase is going to change the fact that that office has no likelihood of ever doing its job correctly,” he said. “It’s in the wrong department.”
Sugar has argued for guardianship oversight to be in the hands of the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which licenses a wide range of practitioners, from architects to cosmetologists to talent agents.
“The Department of Elder Affairs [which oversees the Office of Public and Professional Guardians] is really good at doing social-service kinds of things like Meals on Wheels, but really terrible at things like this,” Sugar said. “The result is people die. And countless more lose their life savings, and countless more end up warehoused, over-medicated and neglected.”
State Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, who had suggested after Monday’s meeting that there were other ways to reduce the risk for abuse besides spending more money, did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.
Much of the requested increase — about $5.5 million — would be used to boost funds for the 17 public guardian programs throughout the state that serve vulnerable elderly or mentally disabled residents who are poor.
But it also includes about $455,000 in recurring funds for investigative services to examine complaints against professional guardians, who are appointed to represent people who have money and property. Professionals are paid out of the wards’ assets — either from their bank accounts or by cashing in their investments and selling off their property — while public guardians are paid by the state.
Publicity over the problems with Fierle, who has since resigned from her cases, is expected to spur an increase in the number of complaints that warrant investigation — from 48 last year to 75 this year to a projected 94 next year. And because the complaints are becoming more detailed, with more allegations of misconduct by the guardians, the cost of each investigation is also increasing, from an average of nearly $5,300 apiece last year to more than $6,300 this year.
Another $500,000 would go to monitor the professional guardians through an as-yet-undeveloped “tool,” which an agency spokeswoman said could be a software system or additional personnel.
Typically, judges appoint guardians to individual cases, but there is currently no statewide database of which guardians are handling which cases. That makes it difficult for judges in one circuit to know whether a guardian is already charged with handling dozens of cases in another circuit — making it easier for unscrupulous guardians to take advantage of their wards.
“Much of this can be mitigated by the development, implementation and operation of a professional guardian monitoring tool that can … prevent abuse, neglect and exploitation,” the request said.