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SPOTLIGHT
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Protecting older Americans is priority

Published on -6/20/2012, 1:02 PM

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Elder abuse is a hidden epidemic that annually impacts the health and well-being of 6 million older people, as well as their families and caretakers. As U.S. attorney in the district of Kansas, I am dedicating our office to join in the drive to protect older Americans.

The problems faced by elderly Americans include physical, sexual and emotional abuse, as well as neglect and financial exploitation. Victims come from all ethnic, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Sadly, the perpetrators of financial exploitation are more likely to be family members than strangers.

The case of film star Mickey Rooney is by now a well known example. At 91, Rooney is mentally competent and physically able. His story of how he lost control of his personal finances to trusted family members who he says spent his money without his knowledge and cut him off from contact with the world is troubling to say the least.

In order to protect the financial integrity of the Medicare program on which so many older Americans rely, the Dept. of Justice and the Dept. of Health and Human Services decided early on to make combating healthcare fraud a top priority. The Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) has recovered more than $8 billion since May 2009 involving fraud against the Medicare program and other health care programs.

This type of elder abuse depletes the resources of individuals, families businesses and public programs including Medicare and Medicaid, by billions each year, placing enormous burdens on our health care, financial and judicial systems. We are sending a strong and clear message that we are determined to identify and prosecute Medicare fraud.

Just as important as protecting the fiscal integrity of the Medicare program is our commitment to ensuring that our nation's nursing homes and other health care providers are actually providing the care and services to which our Medicare beneficiaries are entitled, rather than exploiting those beneficiaries and the Medicare program for their own benefit.

We also are committed to protecting older Americans from consumer scams and fraud.

The Consumer Protection Division of the Justice Dept. is working to combat fraud on the elderly as part of a broader emphasis on fraud targeting vulnerable populations.

As Deputy Attorney General James Cole said recently, we can't simply prosecute our way out of the problems. The way we can be most effective in protecting older Americans from financial exploitation is by combining our resources and expertise. We need adult protective services workers, long term care ombudsmen, domestic violence advocates, geriatric specialists, the financial services industry, health care providers, advocates, state and local law enforcement, and prosecutors and civil legal aid lawyers to join with us.

For example, legal services programs have a unique opportunity to help prevent mortgage foreclosures resulting from a family member's theft of a senior's life savings. They can counsel worried elder clients about legal options for responding to debt brought on by a financial scam. Better yet, they can counsel them on how to avoid the scam in the first place.

Our office looks forward to working with all our partners to fight the battle against elder abuse and financial exploitation. Too many elderly Americans are suffering alone. Together we can change that.

To report an incident of elder abuse, call the U.S. attorney's office at (855) 321-5549.

Barry Grissom is the U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas.

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