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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

April 16, 2009

Florida bills to protect seniors target assisted living, annuities

By Diane Lade

Florida senior citizens could receive more consumer protections regarding their investments and assisted-living housing under two measures working their way through the state Legislature during its ongoing session.

One proposal would increase criminal penalties and fines for financial services sales agents who knowingly sell seniors unsuitable annuities, or who prey on those with dementia. The bill also takes a harder look at some of the new titles salespeople claim give them special expertise in managing retirees' money.

The second measure would increase background checks for both residents and employees of assisted-living facilities, as well as give stricter guidelines for discharging residents.

Both measures have passed the Senate but still are moving through House committees, where they could be altered.

Consumer advocates praised legislators for pushing forward measures designed to protect Florida's vulnerable senior citizens, but noted both bills fall short of their expectations.

"It lays the groundwork for us," said Brian Lee, head of Florida's Long-Term Ombudsman's program, which helps assisted-living and nursing-home residents. "Whatever comes out will be good for us."

Senate bill 2082, sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, increases criminal penalties for agents found guilty of deceptively "twisting" or "churning" annuity sales, orconvincing consumers to give up existing annuity policies and purchase new ones that aren't suitable for them. The bill would make such crimes, which are now misdemeanors, second- or third-degree felonies, and double most fines.

Stricter penalties have been strongly supported by Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who has been alarmed at the growing number of annuity fraud complaints. The state reviewed 351 complaints involving annuity transactions in fiscal year 2006-07, a 41 percent increase over the previous years.