WASHINGTON — State regulators, social service workers and several medical organizations are teaming up to help health care providers identify and protect older patients who are vulnerable to financial abuse and scams.
"Our goal is to improve the communication among medical professionals, older Americans, (their) adult children and state securities regulators in order to head off financial swindles before the damage is done," said Don Blandin, president of the Investor Protection Trust, one of the groups behind the new campaign.
The effort to curb the financial exploitation of seniors was announced Tuesday on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It comes as a new survey by the trust shows that one in five Americans over age 65 — more than 7.3 million people — reported being victimized in a financial swindle at some point in their life.
In fact, the survey of more than 2,000 adults found that half of older Americans were ripe for potential financial victimization. For example, of 590 respondents age 65 and over, 37 percent reported being solicited by phone for money, while 16 percent said they weren't confident making big financial decisions by themselves.
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Elder financial abuse can assume many forms, including telemarketing or mail fraud, contracting and repair scams, or bad advice from financial services professionals such as insurance salesmen and accountants. It can also include identity theft, abuse of guardianship or even Medicare fraud.
The "Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation" project will train medical professionals across the country to identify patients with mild cognitive impairments who are most susceptible to financial scams. The goal is to have caregivers inform state regulators about patients who pose the greatest risk for abuse.
Elder financial scams are believed to be the third most common form of elder abuse, behind neglect and emotional abuse, according to the National Council on Aging.
A 2009 study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute found that financial abuse costs America's seniors more than $2.6 billion a year. The study found that up to a million older victims may be targeted each year, but 80 percent of cases go unreported. Family members and caregivers were the perpetrators in 55 percent of reported cases.
Experts say elderly fraud victims are at a higher risk for an early death.
"In financial exploitation cases, when our victims have lost everything to someone that they trusted with their life, they tend to die shortly thereafter," said Page Ulrey, an elder abuse prosecutor in Seattle.
The typical victim of elder financial abuse is a frail, white female age 70 and over who is cognitively impaired, according to the National Adult Protective Services Association. Victims are often trusting, lonely or isolated.
The national effort is a collaboration between the Investor Protection Trust, the North American Securities Administrators Association and the National Adult Protective Services Association, along with the American Academy of Family Physicians, the National Area Health Education Center Organization and the National Association of Geriatric Education Centers.
The effort is modeled after a 2008 Texas program that tried to curb financial scams against older people whose diminished capacities made it impossible for them to make sound financial decisions. Hoping to reach these vulnerable seniors before they were victimized, the Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Securities Commission provided training to alert medical personnel to the problem. They also distributed guidebooks with behavioral warning signs for caregivers to watch for.
Those who encountered problem patients would either contact the patient's family, refer them for additional testing or alert the securities commission about their condition. Texas Securities Commissioner Denise Voigt Crawford said the notifications were completely confidential and didn't violate patient privacy laws. Once notified, her staff would then check independently or with family members to make sure the patients weren't being exploited.
Fifty-five percent of medical professionals who participated in the program found patients who could have been exploited, said Dr. Robert E. Roush of the Baylor College of Medicine. He said cognitive impairment makes older people more prone to take risks, which makes them more vulnerable to unscrupulous people who want to steal their money."
"We're extremely happy with the results here in Texas and now we want to take it nationwide," said Crawford, who's also president of the North American Securities Administrators Association.
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