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The Colorado State Capitol on Dec. 10, 2021. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

A controversial public guardianship program created to make health and legal decisions for people with no family or friends will expand beyond Denver this summer, a legislative committee decided Wednesday. 

The vote by the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee settles a tumultuous few weeks of debate about the Office of Public Guardianship, which had asked for an extra $770,000 to hire additional guardians and expand operations to La Junta and Montrose. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers argued that the office didn’t deserve more funding, citing 14 deaths of wards in the last two years and conflict between Denver Health staff and guardians who were assigned to hospitalized patients.

 The House had stripped money for the expansion to two additional judicial districts, the Senate restored it and a debate among the budget committee Wednesday settled on the side of allowing the program to expand. It’s likely the end of the conversation, although it’s not officially over until the legislature approves the $36.4 billion state budget in the coming days. 

The Joint Budget Committee voted 4-2 to allow the program to expand, with Republicans Rep. Kim Ransom of Douglas County and Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale voting against it. 

“It’s so typical of how government programs just grow, no matter what we do,” said Rankin, warning that lawmakers were voting to expand a program for which they have no evidence of success. “I think we need to be very cautious.” 

But others on the budget committee, including Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat, said the program should expand in order for lawmakers to see how it functions not just in Denver but in other judicial districts. After they have that data, legislators will decide whether to end the program or work toward making it statewide.

The Office of Public Guardianship, which began taking wards in 2020, is now making decisions for about 70 people who are unable to care for themselves because of age, disabilities or medical conditions. The program has so far operated only in Denver, but now can expand to the three counties in the judicial district based in La Junta and the six counties in the district based in Montrose. 

The original legislation that set up the pilot program called for a report, due in January, that will help lawmakers determine whether to move from a pilot program to a permanent one. The bill called for installing public guardians in three districts, but, until now, the program had been stalled by the pandemic and funding issues. 

The additional funds headed for approval this year will allow the office to expand its staff to 11 from seven, including hiring guardians in southeast and southwest Colorado. The new funding is set to come July 1, at the start of the state fiscal year, and only six months before the office is required by law to submit its report to the legislature.

In addition to the deaths, some lawmakers were concerned about complaints from Denver Health that paid public guardians ignored requests to visit wards in the hospital and had abandoned wards after they died. One guardian was escorted from the hospital because of belligerent behavior with staff, Denver Health officials said.

The guardianship office told The Sun the deaths were due to medical conditions, and the median age of wards who died was 67.

A state survey taken before the guardianship office was created found that 1,000 to 1,300 adult guardianship cases were filed in courts across Colorado each year. Colorado law says a person who is concerned about another’s welfare can petition for guardianship. If a judge is convinced a person needs a guardian, the judge can appoint one who is then responsible for financial, medical and other decisions for their ward. But often, no relatives or friends are found. 

Without a public guardianship office, hospitals, long-term care facilities and others must seek guardianship for their abandoned patients through probate court. 

The legislature approved the pilot program in 2017, then funded the Office of Public Guardianship in 2018. The office hired an executive director at the end of 2019 and began taking on wards in April 2020.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...