The financial costs of the exploitation of older adults are steep, and senior living communities often left holding the bag, according to a federal report on how those costs are reported. 

The U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report on Tuesday estimating financial costs to victims of financial exploitation of older adults are in the billions. But understanding the scope of the problem is hindered by a lack of nationwide data, according to the office.

The GAO found that not all incidents of exploitation are reported to state agencies, that victims can be reluctant to implicate family or caregivers, and that federal and state data systems don’t always align to make reporting easy.

The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported that elder financial exploitation stood at $1.7 billion in 2017. Studies published from 2016 to 2020 also show that the estimated costs of financial exploitation could be more than $1 billion each in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

A CFPB manual for assisted living and nursing homes highlights that financial victimization of older adults in these settings “can place them at risk of involuntary discharge or loss of housing for nonpayment.” In these situations, a facility may have to bear the cost if a resident becomes destitute and bills go unpaid, the authors said, and some long-term care facilities also can lose money if a family member or other individual responsible for paying for the victim’s care fails to do so.

In one example in the publication, the son of an older adult bed bound in a facility claimed his father’s assets were his “birthright,” and he refused to pay the facility. In another example, the daughter of a resident spent $100,000 from her mother’s savings account, also refusing to pay the facility, which said it would probably never receive payment.

The report notes that although some of these costs can be quantified by a facility, capturing those costs across facilities is difficult due to variations in state laws and practices. Records of unpaid fees may be available from facilities, but these amounts generally are not recorded in an individual’s case file.

The GAO recommended that the Department of Health and Human Services work with states to improve data on financial exploitation of older adults and develop a timeframe to share information and tools to improve data collection.

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