FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A bill aimed at easing the state’s growing burden as guardian of vulnerable elderly and disabled people moved a step closer to clearing the legislature Wednesday.
The measure, which seeks to ease the strain by ensuring that more relatives take on guardianship roles, won unanimous approval from the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, without any changes.
The bill goes next to the full Senate. The House approved it by a vote of 79-3 early this month.
It comes as the state struggles with growing caseloads of people who become wards of the state. The state is currently guardian for 4,448 wards, said Tim Feeley, deputy secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
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“We have a system where our guardianship program continues to grow and grow and grow, and we can’t keep up with it,” he told the committee.
State guardians are juggling caseloads of 65 to 70 wards apiece, about three times more than that recommended by national guidelines, Feeley said.
Under the current system, when families are fighting over who will serve as a relative’s guardian, judges sometimes resolve the matter by appointing the state as guardian, the bill’s supporters said.
Under the bill, judges would have to determine that “exceptional circumstances” exist to appoint the state as guardian.
The bill “makes the family have to work it out,” said main sponsor Republican Rep. Daniel Elliott of Danville.
Unlike some neighboring states, Kentucky has no cap on the number of wards in its public guardianship program, and Feeley spoke against imposing such limits.
“I don’t think a cap is the right idea, because there’s always one more case that we need,” he said.
Much of the discussion in committee focused on another provision, which would allow jury trials to be waived in guardianship matters when all participants consent to a judge deciding the case.
Supporters stressed that the right to a jury trial would remain intact for anyone wanting it. Kentucky is the last state to require jury trials in such guardianship matters, Feeley said.
The provision was opposed by Heidi Schissler Lanham, legal director at Kentucky Protection and Advocacy, an agency that provides legal representation for people with disabilities.
She said jury trials should remain without a bench trial option. Those cases determine whether vulnerable people lose such rights as disposal of property, where they live and medical treatment, she said.
“We need to continue to have jury trials in guardianship cases,” she said. “You’re taking away important rights.”
The legislation also would shield public guardians employed by the state from personal liability unless their actions were grossly negligent.
The legislation is House Bill 5.