Tampa Bay ABC Investigation Uncovers Medical Kidnapping of Seniors Throughout Florida with State Guardianships
Comments by Brian Shilhavy
Editor, Health Impact News
The state of Florida, home to many seniors who have retired in that state, has had numerous investigations this year by local media outlets in the state’s guardianship program that takes away the civil rights of senior adult patients, allowing them to seize their estates, and in at least one high-profile case, even issue a “do not resuscitate” order without involving the patient’s family.
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Now one local media outlet out of Tampa Bay, ABC Action News WFTS, has conducted a three-month investigation that uncovered numerous examples of hospitals in Orlando, Miami, West Palm Beach, Naples and other Florida cities paying private attorneys to file hundreds of court petitions to put patients into guardianship.
Hospitals across the Florida are paying lawyers to go to court to take away patients’ rights, a three-month I-Team investigation uncovered.
An I-Team review of state court records found:
- Tampa Bay area hospitals, including those owned by Baycare, AdventHealth and HCA, went to court to put more than 100 patients into guardianship since 2017 alone.
- Tampa General Hospital filed five nearly identical court documents seeking guardianship for patients, describing each as having “disorganized thinking and poor cognition.” A hospital spokeswoman said TGH spent $28,000 on guardianship cases so far in just 2019.
- An attorney for Florida Hospital Altamonte requested guardianship for a patient because her “Kia Soul that was almost paid off… may be repossessed.”
Tampa guardianship attorney Gerald Hemness questions Florida’s use of taking over guardianship so frequently.
“Certainly, missing a payment on a car doesn’t seem like it would be a financial emergency,” said Hemness.
Guardianship is supposed to protect people who have been declared incapacitated and are considered in immediate danger – something that doesn’t often fit the bill for people in the hospital, according to Hemness.
“How – if they’re in a hospital – is their physical well-being at imminent risk? They’re in the safest medical place a person in America can be,” said Hemness.
The Tampa ABC News I-Team interviewed Jay Wolfson, a medical ethicist at University of South Florida, who said that money can be a factor in the decision to take patients to court in order to gain guardianship over them.
“It’s costing the hospital too much to keep the patient in that bed,” said Wolfson.
The I-Team found Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point – an HCA-owned hospital where a semi-private room costs $2,100 a day – requested guardianship for a patient on Social Security, stating in court papers, “The hospital is at risk of being over capacity and the ward’s use of a bed may deprive others.”
None of the hospitals contacted by the I-Team would say why they pay lawyers to go to court instead of letting state social workers at the Department of Children and Families handle the cases of patients potentially in need of a court-appointed guardian.
For those in the guardianship system, a judge hands complete control of their lives to court-appointed guardians. Those under the care of guardians also lose most of their rights, including the right to vote, drive, marry, make medical decisions, determine where to live and decide which friends and family members are allowed to visit.
State Appointed Guardians: Power to Make Life and Death Decisions
AdventHealth is one Florida hospital that paid about $4 million to a guardian named Rebecca Fierle who is currently under criminal investigation for causing the death of a man that was appointed to her care as a guardian.
According to the ABC I-Team investigation:
Invoices show AdventHealth paid Fierle the $4 million to serve as the guardian for 682 patients at its Orlando hospital – part of a secret arrangement hidden from the courts.
A court investigation report shows Fierle never disclosed to the judge she was being paid by the hospital – a violation of state statute, which bars guardians from receiving financial benefits other than those approved by the court.
On Aug. 5, 2018, a judge approved placing Steven Stryker under Fierle’s care in a hearing that allegedly lasted less than three minutes.
The I-Team obtained the official audio recording of the court proceedings. Laughter can be heard on the recording after the judge decides to push up the hearing date by three weeks and decide the case that day.
Stryker spent two months in the hospital prior to the hearing. After Fierle was appointed his guardian, she moved him from the hospital to multiple assisted living facilities, which investigators reported did not meet his medical needs.
Stryker died in May after Fierle had his feeding tube removed and ordered a “Do Not Resuscitate” order without permission.
Listen to the recording below, or at the ABC Action News WFTS website.
1.3 Million Adults Medically Kidnapped and $50 Billion of Their Assets Seized
Last year (2018) The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on a court-appointed guardian of seniors who had a previous conviction for fraud and bad checks, and was removed from her role as guardian by a judge due to her alleged theft of senior assets.
Their investigation revealed that nationwide, government guardians oversee an estimated 1.3 million adults and $50 billion of their assets.
That means that it is far more likely for a senior to be medically kidnapped in the United States today, than it is for a child to be medically kidnapped, as the total number of children in foster care today is around 450,000.
In most cases, all it takes for the state to take over guardianship of a senior is the testimony of a psychiatrist stating that they are incapable of making decisions.
To learn more, read Attorney Lisa Belanger’s report: