Pending Family Care cap concerns county probate court

Posted by PKSD Law Firm on Apr 05, 2011 in Firm News

by Jack Zemlicka of the Wisconsin Law Journal The pending enrollment cap on Wisconsin's Family Care program could put more senior citizens and mentally disabled people before judges in an already overburdened Milwaukee County probate court.

During the past four years, the number of protective-action filings, which include guardianships for senior citizens and young adults with mental health problems, increased by more than 1,300.

"Cases are taking a lot of attention and time,"? said Civil Division Judge Mel Flanagan. "I do six to eight cases every day, and that's not like it used to be.?"

Previously, one or two cases per day accounted for the majority of her time in probate.

The increase is a reflection of the aging baby boomer generation and a poor economy, said Flanagan, who, along with Judge Bill Brash, handles the probate caseload.

But Flanagan and others said the volume could further increase if the state approves a cap on the Family Care program, which provides in-home meals and some medical equipment for elderly people and low-income adults who have developmental or physical disabilities.

Without access to the program, those people are more at risk to be abused or to be in need of protective placements by the court, said Maria Ledger, interim executive director of the Milwaukee County Department of Family Care.

"I don't see how it couldn't lead to more work for the courts," she said. "Because if you end up in a dangerous situation, at some point there is going to be a court-related action to safeguard what is left of the person's safety or health."

The Family Care program serves about 7,700 senior citizens and mentally disabled people in Milwaukee County, Ledger said.

But part of Gov. Scott Walker's budget calls for capping enrollment in the state program, which is paid for through Medicaid, by July 1 to save $100 million in tax money. The Legislative budget committee approved the provision in late May. If adopted in the state budget, the cap would last for two years.

It might be a spending cut, but it won't save money, Flanagan said.

"If there isn't a protective service system, it's not as if these people will just disappear," she said. "They will end up in court-ordered protective service or jail. Either way, it's very expensive day care."

Ledger said the cap is a shortsighted fix because the cost to provide services through Family Care is cheaper than the alternative. The average cost, for instance, of Family Care's community long-term service is $2,800 per month, compared to $4,000 for nursing home care, she said.

"We are absolutely not reluctant to work with the budget," she said. "But part of those negotiations need to still ensure we have enough money to do a good job."

Milwaukee attorney Jeff Pitman represents victims of nursing home abuse and said that during the past 10 years, the trend has been to try and keep more elderly people in their homes longer, with the aid of programs such as Family Care.

"I don't know where else people would come up with money," he said, "if they do not have means themselves."

Ledger said there are about 2,000 people between the ages of 18 and 59 on a waiting list for services. She said the department clears, on average, 125 people off the waiting list each month and should clear the entire list within a year.

"Clearly, that isn't going to happen with these caps," she said. "It's heartbreaking to think that the list will grow when people with disabilities turn 18 and can't get help."

For some, the only alternative might be an appearance before Flanagan or another judge in the system.

"A lot of these people can easily be swept up in the criminal justice system," Flanagan said. "Not because they are out there committing crimes, but because they are being used by other people."

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at jack.zemlicka@wislawjournal.com.

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