- Associated Press - Saturday, March 29, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - As Iowa’s population grows older, lawmakers are trying to determine the best policies and practices to protect the state’s elderly population from financial exploitation and other abuses.

Data released in December 2012 by the U.S. Census Bureau ranks Iowa ninth nationally in the percentage of population age 65 or older, and the state is fourth among states for residents age 85 or older. Given that, lawmakers are considering legislation intended to better protect older Iowans and the future elder population.

The state Senate and House have approved different versions of a bill intended to create penalties for financially exploiting elderly people and to establish better protections for vulnerable adults.

“We have for some time now recognized that, as Iowa’s population is growing older, we have a substantially growing number of people that are vulnerable to being taken advantage of,” Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, said last week before the House voted on the measure. “We want to make sure that we’re doing something positive to protect them and to make sure that they are not being preyed upon by other people.”

The House approved the bill 92-2 and sent it back to the Senate, where a different version had been approved unanimously.

The bill has three key components.

It establishes as a crime the financial exploitation of a vulnerable elder, with similar punishments to those already in place for theft. If relatives or others responsible for the finances of an elder use money for their own benefit, they could faces charges ranging from a civil misdemeanor to a class “C” felony, depending on the value of assets.

The bill defines a vulnerable elder as someone age 65 or older who is at risk for being taken advantage of because of a physical or mental impairment or the aging process.

The bill also sets up a protective order system for elders similar to those for domestic or child abuse. This would allow the vulnerable elder or somebody on their behalf to petition the court to remove the elder from an abusive situation, including the threat of intentional injury or of financial exploitation.

“We think that that’s certainly something important that the court would have authority to do,” Baltimore said.

Under the bill, organizations including the Iowa Department on Aging and Iowa’s Area Agencies on Aging would be directed to convene during the interim and return to the Legislature with a report on how the system can be further improved.

The bill approved by the House removed some aspects in the Senate bill, including the creation of an office that would focus on investigating elder abuse cases and overseeing new services for the elderly.

Rep. Lisa Heddens, D-Ames, said she opposed the removal of the Senate provisions but still supported the House version, saying it “absolutely protects our most vulnerable Iowans.”

Baltimore said language creating the new office was removed because the bill didn’t identify how to pay the additional costs.

“Nobody included a single dime for any of this,” Baltimore said Thursday.

Such an office also would repeat services now offered by other agencies, he said.

The Senate version also set the age requirement as 60 or older, which Heddens said complies with federal standards for providing certain services to elders. But Baltimore said times have changed since this federal standard was enacted in 1965, and the older age is now appropriate because people are living longer and healthier lives.

Heddens said this disparity might lead to confusion for senior citizens in Iowa, and the limited definition could miss some Iowans who don’t fit the criteria as vulnerable.

“I really want to make sure that we’re addressing the gap,” she said Friday.

Sen. Mary Jo Wilhelm, D-Cresco, who managed the Senate bill on the floor, said in an email that she needed to review the House’s amendments before commenting on the changes.

Lawmakers agree that the bill focuses on a population that has largely been unprotected.

“Overall I think it’s a positive step toward protecting Iowans who can’t protect themselves,” Baltimore said Thursday.

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