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Thousands of residents in U.S. nursing homes and other long-term care institutions for the aged and disabled have had their personal savings raided or mismanaged after relying on the facilities to safeguard the money in special trust fund accounts, a USA TODAY investigation shows.CHAT TRANSCRIPT: Reporter answers your nursing home tweetsThese trust funds, which most long-term care providers are required to maintain for residents who request that the facility handle their money, are supposed to work like conventional bank accounts, with accrued interest, regular statements and reliable oversight. But USA TODAY found more than 1,500 recent cases in which nursing homes have been cited by state and federal regulators for mishandling the funds.

In scores of cases, employees or administrators siphoned huge sums of money from trust accounts — hundreds of thousands of dollars in some instances — for everything from shopping and gambling sprees to routine household expenses. In hundreds more cases, facilities failed to pay interest on the funds, could not account for their holdings, or did not carry adequate insurance to protect the money from loss or theft.The investigation spotlights a growing problem that has caught the attention of state attorneys general, several of whom have beefed up units that investigate financial exploitation in long-term care. Yet the problems continue, and there could be far more thieves who never get caught.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Tips to protect family members‘ fundsTrust fund cases „can be hard to detect,“ says Lori Smetanka, head of the National Long-Term Care Ombudsman Resource Center. „It can take a long time before anyone figures out that someone is stealing the money … I think a lot of cases don’t even get picked up.“When a case does come to light, the victimized residents usually get reimbursed because nursing homes are supposed to keep the trust funds insured. But the worry, confusion and emotional damage often linger on.Officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that regulates almost all of the nation’s nearly 16,000 nursing homes, were unavailable to comment due to the federal government shutdown. But many state officials acknowledge that trust fund thefts and mismanagement are a growing problem that gets insufficient attention from both nursing home operators and the agencies that oversee them.