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"Radio host to pay fine in AG's inquiry"

Sacramento Bee

Relatively wealthy clients filed false claims for benefits, officials argued

By Cynthia Hubert
Published 12:00 am PDT Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lawyer and radio host James Walker has made a living advising California senior citizens on how to shift the cost of their nursing home care to taxpayers.

"Find out the best way to stop long term care from wiping out everything you have!" Walker's Senior Care Advocates urges on its Web site.

Walker has insisted that, by helping older people qualify for Medi-Cal, the state's insurance program for the poor, he is looking out for their rights. But state officials have argued that Walker abused the system by, among other things, helping relatively wealthy seniors file false claims for Medi-Cal benefits.

The state attorney general's office recently completed a four-year investigation of Walker. In a settlement filed in Sacramento Superior Court, Walker agreed to change his business practices, pay a civil penalty of up to $275,000 and clearly separate his legal and consulting services. No criminal charges were filed.

Walker said he feels good about the settlement, which allows state officials to monitor his records and bars him from misrepresenting the financial needs of seniors.

"The government is going to review all of my practices and procedures for three years, and that's fine with me," he said.

Walker is part of a growing industry of financial advisers who focus on seniors, according to elder advocates. The advocates worry that older people are giving away their assets to qualify for Medi-Cal nursing home coverage and paying thousands of dollars in fees to obtain aid they do not need.

"There are lots of scammers out there, and they're getting away with it," said Carole Herman, founder and director of Foundation for Aiding the Elderly in Sacramento. Herman said she has had five complaints related to Walker's business.

Prescott Cole, an attorney for California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, said Walker's "celebrity" status as a syndicated talk show radio host in Northern California gives him undeserved credibility. He charges up to $20,000 for "something that is available at a fraction of the cost" from other lawyers and agencies, Cole said.

Walker defends his fees and said the case makes him more determined than ever "to defend the rights of my clients." Nursing home care costs an average of $70,000 a year, he pointed out, and to qualify for state coverage seniors must be virtually destitute.

"The state wants seniors to exhaust all their money before they apply for benefits, and they are opposed to an advocate who would help them avoid that," he said.

The state was unable to prove fraud, he said, although the settlement accuses Walker of helping people qualify for Medi-Cal "on the basis of false information" and "making untrue and misleading statements" to induce people to pursue benefits.

Walker admits to no wrongdoing. He said he agreed to the settlement to avoid further legal action.

The agreement, supervising attorney general Mark Zahner said, will help protect the public.

"We got what we wanted," Zahner said. "We will check into his business, as well as his advertising. We want to make sure that everything he is saying and doing passes muster."

Consumers should adopt a "buyer beware" approach to estate and financial planning, said Stan Rosenstein, who oversees the Medi-Cal program. "Otherwise they'll spend a whole lot of money on services from which they will never really benefit."