Promise we made to the incapacitated must be kept

Our state has made great strides in recovering from the Great Recession. But the path to this fiscal position was not paved easily or without sacrifice. Too much budgeting during our recovery was done on the backs of seniors and the most vulnerable.

As director of the Lewis-Mason-Thurston Area Agency on Aging and legislative chair of the Washington Association of Area Agencies on Aging, I work to manage, monitor, plan, and advocate for services and programs that serve the elderly and disabled persons. I’ve seen firsthand the damage that these cuts have had upon vulnerable seniors and the severely disabled.

I travel across our region meeting with seniors and advocates, reporting on the actions and decisions of our Legislature. I was particularly surprised by concerns raised in small towns and cities about public guardians.

Residents routinely expressed concern for those people who have lost their capacity to manage their lives and require assistance. In some cases, there is no family or friend available to assist them. For this population, public guardians are the last resort. But instead of growing to meet this need, public guardianships has faced drastic reductions.

A recent 50 percent cut to the Office of Public Guardianship has hit seniors and the disabled particularly hard. Funding for this program must be fully restored by the Legislature this session to protect and care for vulnerable, incapacitated elderly and disabled individuals in our communities. A reappropriation of $200,000 would enable the program to adequately serve our community.

Public guardians meet a pressing need by making health-care decisions, enhancing safety, obtaining housing, paying bills, and completing other vital tasks for those with cognitive and other disabilities. Public guardians only assist incapacitated individuals who have no suitable alternative pathway to assistance.

In short, a public guardian can only be appointed when there is no one else available. Without the assistance of public guardians, the most vulnerable individuals in our communities are left subject to exploitation, abuse and self–neglect.

Until the 50 percent cut, the program provided guardians for approximately 125 incapacitated persons across 10 counties, including Pierce County. Today, their caseload has been triaged and administrators have already begun transitioning most of the remaining cases out of the program. The program is operating at a freeze, refusing to take additional cases to stay within budget.

Not only is restoring funding to the program the right thing to do for our community, it’s fiscally prudent to do so as well. A recent study by the Washington Institute for Public Policy found that within 30 months, savings in residential client care costs exceeded the public guardianship program costs, thereby making the program cost-neutral over time.

In addition to these measured outcomes, clients’ quality of life was vastly improved and lives were likely saved in the process.

An appropriation of approximately $200,000 will restore OPG to its former caseload. This is a small investment that we, as a state, can afford to make that will ultimately pay for itself within three years. This appropriation is needed now, this legislative session, before more seniors are denied the assistance they were previously promised.

We cannot assume responsibility for the most vulnerable individuals in our communities and then change our minds. Now that our recovery from the Great Recession is well under way, we can finally afford to do the right thing.

Dennis Mahar of Olympia is director of the Lewis-Thurston-Mason Area Council on Aging and legislative chair of the Washington Association of Area Agencies on Aging.