Controversial public guardianship scheme allowed to expand

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A controversial public guardianship program created to make health and legal decisions for people without family or friends will expand beyond Denver this summer, a legislative committee decided Wednesday.

The vote by the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee caps a few weeks of tumultuous debate over the Office of Public Guardianship, which had requested an additional $770,000 to hire additional guardians and expand operations in La Junta and Montrose.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers argued the office didn’t deserve more funding, citing 14 ward deaths over the past two years and a dispute between Denver Health staff and guardians assigned to inpatients.

The House had stripped money for the expansion to two additional judicial districts, the Senate reinstated it, and a debate in the Budget Committee on Wednesday voted on whether to allow the program to expand. . That’s likely the end of the conversation, though it won’t be officially over until the legislature approves the $36.4 billion state budget in the coming days.

The Joint Budget Committee voted 4-2 to allow the program to expand, with Republican Representative Kim Ransom of Douglas County and Senator Bob Rankin of Carbondale voting against.

“It’s so typical of how government programs expand no matter what we do,” Rankin said, warning that lawmakers were voting to expand a program they have no evidence of success for. “I think we have to be very careful.”

But other members of the budget committee, including Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver, said the program should be expanded so lawmakers can see how it works not just in Denver but in other judicial districts. Once they have that data, lawmakers will decide whether to end the program or work to make it statewide.

The Office of Public Guardianship, which began taking wards 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 can now expand to the three counties in the La Junta-based judicial district and the six counties in the Montrose-based district.

The original legislation that set up the pilot program called for a report, due in January, that will help lawmakers determine whether to move from a pilot to a permanent program. The bill called for the installation of public guardians in three districts, but, so far, the program had been stalled by the pandemic and funding issues.

Additional funds to be approved this year will allow the office to expand its staff to 11 of seven, including the hiring of tutors in southeast and southwest Colorado. The new funding is expected to come July 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year, and just six months before the office is required by law to submit its report to the legislature.

In addition to the deaths, some lawmakers were 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.

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

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.

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.

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