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Free in WNY / A support system for seniors

The Center for Elder law protects against scams, provides advice on Medicare, and much, much more

Photo by kc kratt


Every few weeks, there’s a similar news story. A swindle is making its way through the region—its target: the elderly. A recent scam involved the new Medicare cards, with unsuspecting seniors inadvertently divulging both Social Security numbers and protected health information, leaving them vulnerable on multiple fronts. Have you ever wondered who helps the people who have fallen victim to these unscrupulous scammers?


In Western New York, affected seniors can reach out—for free—to The Center for Elder Law & Justice to help deal with  financial scams, as well as a whole host of other legal matters, such as debt collection, Medicare and Medicaid, and kinship issues. And while “elder” may be in the center’s name, some of the services, such as foreclosure assistance, are available to anyone who meets the income guidelines.


The center was founded in 1978 with the goal of protecting the essentials of life, such as access to housing and healthcare. In 2010, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman created the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Service in New York, to help ensure low-income residents had civil litigation representation. The creation of this task force resulted in the Office of Court Administration, which provides the majority of the Center for Elder Law’s funding. More funding comes from Office of the Aging contracts (from each of the Western New York counties that the center serves). Grants and foundations provide the remainder of the center’s funding.


As a civil legal services agency, the center handles a wide variety of situations for people: everything from dealing with identity theft to helping resolve health insurance issues. Sarah Galvan, director of development for the center, points out that if you’re not a lawyer, you might not even realize there’s a legal solution to the problem you’re having. For example, if you’re in a skilled nursing facility after rehabilitation from a fall, you might find that your insurance company has denied your physical therapy benefits. This is something the center can assist with, since all health insurance decisions have a legal appeal process, says Kelley Barrett from the center’s Healthcare Unit.


Seeking legal assistance early is imperative, especially in cases of fraud and identity theft. Nicole Parshall, from the Consumer Protection Unit, admits that it is very difficult to recover actual lost money, although she says working with the postal inspector has occasionally resulted in positive outcomes. Often though, the center’s goal is to “stem the bleeding,” so there are no further losses. The center can walk victims through the process of filing a police report, filling out a fraud affidavit, and freezing their credit. Representation in any resulting lawsuits is also possible.


The center works with many community partners as well, to make sure that no one who needs help is overlooked. Staff members do presentations at senior centers, community events, churches, even the refugee center. They’ve also partnered with community stakeholders to develop a “no wrong door” policy, so that no matter where a person goes, they’ll be directed to the right place for help. Recently, with the assistance of Pro Bono Net, the center developed the Legal Risk Detector app. It is a simple, quick tool that nonlegal service providers can use to screen seniors for potential legal issues. The center has seen very positive results thus far, with referrals coming from senior centers, the Office of the Aging, and even National Grid.


Sarah Galvan encourages seniors (or family members of seniors) with any sort of potential legal issue to give the center a call for more information. As she says, “Why not? We’re free.”   


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