ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) - In the last five years, the caseloads of public guardians in Alaska have steadily increased to a current total of 83 wards for each guardian. This leaves guardians with the Office of Public Advocacy just one hour and 42 minutes per month to manage each ward's medical care, government benefits, housing, vocational services and any income the ward is eligible to receive.
"Public guardians are some of the hardest working people in this state. But, when you saddle them with twice as much work as humanly manageable, there is one obvious result - thousands of disabled Alaskans suffer. This lawsuit will end it," said Meg Zaletel, a partner with the Anchorage-based Northern Justice Project that represents M.M. in his class action filed Oct. 26 against the state of Alaska, the Office of Public Advocacy and its oversight agency the Department of Administration.
Alaska's guardian caseload is more than double the national standard of 40 set by the National Guardianship Association, a membership organization representing professional guardians from across the United States. Even the Office of Public Advocacy admitted in its 2016 budget request that the office is chronically underfunded and its hard-working guardians are unable to keep up with their increasing caseload.
Under to Alaska statute, a guardian must visit each of their protected persons at least once per quarter to monitor their welfare. There are four office locations: Anchorage, Fairbanks, Palmer and Juneau.
But Alaska is a large state where many wards live more than a short drive from their guardian's office. Some require travel by air or boat.
Plaintiff M.M. is on the autism spectrum. In 2014, a court ordered that all his affairs be managed by a public guardian. The Office of Public Advocacy charges wards a monthly fee for its services, plus an initial case set-up fee upon appointment as guardian.
According to the complaint, M.M.'s public advocate has not submitted the proper paperwork so that his supplemental security income continues and has not had adequate time to insure that critical Medicaid benefits remain in place. As a result, M.M. has been left without funds for groceries and other essentials for basic living including rent for his group home. He now stands on the verge of homelessness.
He has attempted unsuccessfully to contact his guardian by phone. He also tried going in person to his guardian's Anchorage office, where he was told that his guardian was not available to see him. He has also not received the mandated quarterly in-person visits.
It took a friend of M.M.'s, Erin Kirkland - listed on the complaint as his "next friend" - to seek legal help. Kirkland declined to comment and referred Courthouse News to Zalatel, whose firm is representing M.M. pro bono.
"We fully expect that [the Office of Public Advocacy] will want to address our requests," Zalatel said. She explained that the defendants have 40 days from the date the complaint was filed to respond.
M.M. seeks an order requiring caseworkers to visit their wards once per quarter and that they will have no more than 40 wards per guardian as the National Guardianship Association recommends. He also wants a refund of the monthly fees for each quarter that guardians did not visit their wards.
Leslie Ridle, deputy commissioner for the state of Alaska Department of Administration defended the agency in an email to Courthouse News.
"The Office of Public Advocacy does an excellent job providing guardians to vulnerable Alaskans," Ridle said. "We are constantly working to create efficiencies in the division to make sure resources are used to help our clients. We are reviewing the case, and at this time we have no further comment."
In his complaint, M.M. says he recognizes that Alaska's public guardians are working extremely hard under an overwhelming set of circumstances. Zalatel said she hopes her client's lawsuit changes things for the guardians and their wards.
"The intent of this lawsuit is to help," she said. "Ultimately, [plaintiffs and defendants both] want to the best possible care for thousands of disabled Alaskans."
M.M.'s case was filed in the Third Judicial District in Anchorage.
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