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Both New York State and the federal government need to strengthen legislation to protect our senior citizens from financial exploitation. If not, then it won’t just be the victims who pay the price. The rest of us will have to ante up as the elderly, who should have been able to pay their own way, are forced early into an enormously expensive publicly funded Medicaid system because some crook cheated them out of their life savings.

There have been a number of deplorable examples of financial abuse of the elderly in the past few months in Erie and Niagara counties.

The latest local case to hit the news involved Matt Pollack, 90, who had saved more than $600,000 over his lifetime so he could live out his final years at his home in Barker, Niagara County. But he was forced into assisted living because Kenneth Heitzenrater, someone he trusted as a son, swindled him out of his life savings. Heitzenrater, who deserved to go to jail for his crime, was sentenced to probation in an effort to force him to work to pay restitution.

Lifespan of Greater Rochester Inc., in partnership with Weill Cornell Medical Center and the New York City Department for the Aging, released a report, “Under the Radar: New York State Elder Prevalence Abuse Study,” which found that for every reported case of financial abuse, 44 cases go unreported.

New York State is one of only three states that does not have mandatory reporting of elder abuse/financial exploitation in the community. That needs to change.

About three years ago, New York State did toughen its power of attorney law so that someone has to specifically indicate that another person has been granted the power to gift to themselves or others. However, many older power-of-attorney documents without this provision remain in force, a potential threat to a senior’s well-being.

Last year, State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman launched “Smart Seniors,” a statewide elder abuse prevention program designed to help seniors identify potential scams and abuses and provide them with information they can use to stay safe and healthy.

The initiative is intended to protect those who are often targeted for financial exploitation, identity theft, telemarketing and sweepstakes fraud, home improvement ripoffs, Internet and online scams and physical abuse.

That effort is supported by the New York State Coalition on Elder Abuse, which has also formulated a list of suggested legislative changes.

A key suggestion involves strengthening New York’s larceny statute, which does not address theft from a mentally impaired person. This often makes it very difficult to prosecute the growing number of cases involving financial exploitation of vulnerable older adults.

Lifespan hopes to conduct a study similar to the Utah Exploitation Study, which calculated that Medicaid had been forced to pay several million dollars for the care of elderly victims of financial abuse.

On a federal level, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced the Robert Matava Exploitation Protection for Elder Adults Act last fall. The legislation would do a number of things, including amend telemarketing fraud statutes to add Ponzi schemes, health care and Medicare/Medicaid fraud as offenses.

Sadly, elderly victims of financial abuse are often prematurely forced onto Medicaid and into nursing homes they were trying to avoid in the first place. There must be better protection for our senior citizens.