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INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — A new nonprofit organization that will assist low-income residents in need of public guardians has been set up in Indian River County.

The Public Guardianship Program of Indian River County will provide a legal protector for low-income, incapacitated people who do not have family members or friends willing to serve as guardian. A public guardian is appointed by the court to oversee a person’s affairs if he or she is deemed to be incapable of making decisions on their own and the person has no assets.

Although in its infancy, the program already is helping four individuals in the county with decisions, including medical care, financial matters and placements in long-term care facilities, according to board members and attorneys Michael Swan and Thomas Tierney from Rossway Swan in Vero Beach, who are overseeing the cases pro bono.

“There are hundreds of legal guardianships in this county, and the vast majority goes to family and friends,” said Swan. “But these are the cases where there’s no family and friends, and there is no money to pay a private guardian.”

Swan said Indian River County currently does not have any service that helps poor, incapacitated residents obtain a legal guardian. Although the Florida Department of Elder Affairs provides a statewide public guardianship office, only 27 counties in the state are served through 13 regional programs, and none are on the Treasure Coast.

Hospitals such as Indian River Medical Center must abide by strict discharge laws that prohibit them from releasing an incapacitated person if a guardian has not been appointed. As a result, the hospital is required to hold the patient — in some instances three or four months — regardless of whether further medical treatment is needed.

These extended stays result in large hospital bills that are not covered by the patient’s insurance, including Medicaid and Medicare, and the hospital is left with the bill, Swan said.

“The patients are not getting the right care,” Swan said. “They’re just sitting there and they need someone to step in.”

During a needs assessment for the public guardian program, about 40 indigent people in Indian River County had an immediate need for a public guardian and up to 90 people a year could benefit from the program, Swan said. About $30,000 in initial funding from IRMC and the Indian River County Hospital District already has been received, and the program hopes to apply for additional foundation grants once its nonprofit status is granted in the next several months.

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