Colorado lawmakers fight over controversial public guardianship program

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A controversial plan to expand Colorado’s nascent public guardianship program for people who have no family or friends to speak for them is in jeopardy as state lawmakers debate the state budget.

The Office of Public Guardianship, which began taking guardianships in 2020, now makes decisions for around 70 people unable to care for themselves due to age, disability or medical conditions. The program has so far only operated in Denver, but is seeking an additional $770,000 to expand to two other regions — the three counties in the La Junta-based judicial district and the six counties in the La Junta-based district. montrose.

The expansion plan has divided Colorado lawmakers, who have yet to make a final decision on funding for the program. It’s one of the elements of the $36.4 billion budget bill that the legislature is trying to iron out as it heads toward final approval.

The Chamber last week stripped the $770,000 needed to add staff and expand the program to two more jurisdictions. The 35-29 vote followed heated debate among a handful of lawmakers, including those who pointed to the deaths of 14 wards during the program’s short but troubled tenure.

In addition to the deaths, lawmakers are concerned about complaints from Denver Health that paid public guardians ignored requests to visit hospital services and dropped services after their deaths. A guard was escorted out of the hospital due to belligerent behavior with staff, Denver Health officials said.

“It’s not something I want to replicate in other jurisdictions,” said Rep. Stephanie Luck, a Republican from Penrose.

Rather than expand the current office, Luck wants to consider more comprehensive programs that go beyond a government agency making only legal and health decisions. “It’s not really a community for these people,” she said. “These people still live in isolated situations. They are still not visited. They are still untreated. There are other models we could use to make sure people are actually welcomed into our communities and find a family, even if it’s not biological.

But on Tuesday, a Senate committee reinstated funding for the expansion of the program, eliminating the House amendment before sending the budget bill to the full Senate. Still, the debate is not over, as the budget is being debated in the Senate this week and then heading to the Joint Budget Committee next week to settle disagreements between the Senate and the House.

A mother of a teenage son with Down syndrome and autism who may one day need a tutor has been the harshest critic of the program. Maureen Welch on Tuesday asked senators not to expand the program, which she called dangerous and random. Instead, Colorado should pause and create structure and oversight to ensure guardians cannot take advantage of vulnerable services, she said.

Additional funding would allow the Office of Public Guardianship to expand its staff to 11 of seven, including hiring guardians in southeast and southwest Colorado. The new funding would come July 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year, and just six months before the bureau is required by law to report to the legislature on its pilot program.

The legislature must decide in January whether to make the office permanent, a process set out in the 2017 law that created the pilot program. The original bill called for the installation of public guardians in three districts, but the program has been stalled by the pandemic and funding issues.

Six months is barely enough time to produce adequate data to show whether the program is helping people in two additional regions, Welch argued. And she wondered what would happen to new neighborhoods in rural Colorado if lawmakers decide not to make the office permanent.

“Now is not the time to expand the program,” she said.

But some lawmakers want the program to expand this summer in hopes of getting additional data by January. That includes Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver and vice chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, which included funding for the expansion in the budget in the first place.

“Here’s our opportunity to get data from these parts of the state, see how it works in a more rural setting, and then have a better chance of evaluating the program,” Hansen said. “Some issues have been raised with this program, and I think that’s what we were trying to do, to get a more comprehensive assessment of what works and what doesn’t.”

Regarding the 14 deaths, Hansen and Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon, urged others not to jump to conclusions. While 14 deaths in about 80 neighborhoods over the past two years is significant, lawmakers should consider the circumstances, McCluskie said.

“We know that this population is elderly, medically frail or in poor health,” she said, noting that higher death rates were expected on wards compared to the general population.

The guardianship office told The Sun the deaths were due to medical conditions and the median age of wards who died was 67.

Despite the controversy, no one has argued that Colorado doesn’t need a program to help those unable to make their own decisions.

A state survey conducted before the office of guardianship was established found that 1,000 to 1,300 adult guardianship cases were filed in Colorado courts each year. Colorado law states that a person who cares about the welfare of another may seek guardianship. If a judge is convinced that a person needs a guardian, he can appoint one who will then be responsible for financial, medical and other decisions for his district. But often, no relative or friend is found.

Without a public guardianship office, hospitals, long-term care facilities and others must seek guardianship of their abandoned patients through probate court, an expensive and time-consuming process.

The legislature approved the pilot program in 2017, then funded the Office of Public Guardianship in 2018. The office hired an executive director in late 2019 and began taking wards in April 2020.

Lawmakers who oppose the expansion have said they don’t want to scrap the program entirely.

“Press pause on this program,” said Rep. Meg Froelich, a Democrat from Greenwood Village. “There is a lack of transparency, a lack of responsiveness. We’re not saying there isn’t a desperate need, but because it serves such vulnerable people, we absolutely have to get it right.

Writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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