By Mac McLean

The Bulletin

PORTLAND — During a Friday speech, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden threw his support behind plans to save a stalled piece of federal legislation that could give states $100 million to hire new elder abuse investigators at a time when their caseload is at an all-time high.

“It’s clear right now the U.S. Congress is having problems ordering a Coca-Cola,” Wyden, D-Ore., said as he addressed the National Adult Protective Services’ Fifth Annual Elder Abuse Summit in Portland. “But we can pull out all the stops and get that done.”

First drafted in 2002, the Elder Justice Act provides federal funding to state adult protective services programs that protect vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities and often serve on the front lines in the war on elder abuse.

The current version of the law — which provides $100 million of support to the country’s adult protective services programs — was attached to the Affordable Care Act and became law when President Barack Obama signed that package of health care reforms in March 2010.

“Despite the fact this law passed four years ago, there has not been a single penny allocated to (hiring new investigators),” said Bill Benson, the national policy adviser for the National Adult Protective Services Association , explaining a “terrible climate in Washington” has kept the act from being funded and could lead to its disappearance altogether.

The need

According to a recent report, Oregon’s 160 adult protective services investigators received 28,449 “calls of concern” reporting a suspected case of elder abuse in 2013. They substantiated, or found enough evidence to prove abuse occurred, 4,221 of these cases last year.

This number of substantiated cases — which includes 152 substantiated cases of elder abuse in Crook, Deschutes, and Jefferson counties — represents a 36 percent increase from the number of substantiated cases the agency handled in 2012. Central Oregon saw a 30 percent increase in its substantiated cases of elder abuse between 2012 and 2013, according to the report.

“Most of our cases are getting more and more complex and we know our caseloads are only going to get bigger,” said Marie Cervantes, director of Oregon’s Office of Adult Abuse Prevention and Investigations.

The report also found the state’s total number of substantiated financial exploitation or financial abuse cases increased by 31 percent between 2010 and 2013

Cervantes said these cases — which make up 25 to 40 percent of her agency’s caseload each year — can sometimes take two to three weeks longer than the typical elder abuse case to investigate because they involve complicated financial transactions and gathering evidence from many banks and lending institutions.

A typical elder abuse case takes 30 to 45 days from start to finish, she added, explaining her investigators often spend two or three days just building up a trusting relationship with an alleged victim that allows them to move forward with a case.

The act

Benson, of NAPSA, said the total number of elder abuse cases and their complexity has increased in just about every part of the country over recent years and that these increases will only continue as the country’s 76 million baby boomers continue to age.

He said the Elder Justice Act would be a huge help because it promises to give each state at least $750,000 — larger states would get more money, depending on their populations — to hire new elder abuse investigators.

That minimum allocation should give each state enough money to hire and train at least seven new adult protective services investigators.

“Hiring new investigators always helps,” Cervantes said, explaining the state could also use this money to hire financial specialists to help with its growing financial exploitation caseload or to free up supervisors saddled with overseeing other human services investigations.

But while state agencies like the Office of Adult Abuse Prevention and Investigations could use the assistance now more than ever, Benson said a few tough obstacles stand in the way of the Elder Justice Act and its $100 million promise.

He said members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are loath to support new federal programs in this era of federal spending cuts and sequestration. It also doesn’t help that the legislation is considered a part of the Affordable Care Act — even though it was first introduced more than a decade ago — which has become a politically charged issue.

But these obstacles didn’t stop Wyden — who has long been considered to be a champion of senior issues — from expressing his desire to at least partially fund the Elder Justice Act and make sure its provisions provide elder abuse investigators with the tools they need for success.

“It’s time to stop the foot-dragging and get this thing into place,” Wyden said as he addressed Friday’s conference. “The federal government has got to be a partner in working with you on this.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816,