A state plan to provide South Carolina's older residents with a list of businesses they can trust was immediately met with questions Friday about its structure and whether it duplicates what other organizations are doing.
Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said at a news conference that Senior Shield would provide elderly residents and their families with a list of businesses that have agreed to a code of ethics and undergone a background check – at the businesses' own expense.
Seniors, who are often the target of con artists posing as legitimate businesspeople, could go online or call a toll-free number to check the claims of a person looking to do work for them. For an additional fee, businesses can have a nationwide criminal background check done on employees who will enter customers' homes.
Businesses also would agree to mediate disputes with elderly customers, and companies that fail to live up to ethical standards would lose their approved status, said Frank Adams, spokesman for the Office on Aging.
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The approval process does not judge quality of work or prices at businesses on the list.
Some critics say other organizations already are keeping track of good and bad businesses.
Jim Camp, president and chief executive officer of the Better Business Bureau of Central South Carolina and Charleston, said his organization already does checks on companies for all consumers.
“I applaud the lieutenant governor's work with seniors,” Camp said. “But I do think he's duplicating … what we already do.”
Bauer, a Republican, said the Senior Shield approval process will be more in-depth than the Better Business Bureau. “It's like that on steroids,” he said.
Senior Shield is a nonprofit organization created by a $100,000 grant from funds left at the Office on Aging when it was transferred from the Department of Health and Human Services to the lieutenant governor's office in 2004, Adams said.
The program will team with for-profit company Silver Nation, which has the software to do the background checks called “Silver Checked” and will share the profits from the fees businesses pay. The state will get $50 of the roughly $200 a year collected from businesses and $1 of the $50 paid for every criminal background check on employees.
That money and the funds raised from sponsors will be used to continue to market the program and possibly even repay the grant used to start it, Bauer's chief of staff Jim Miles said.
Silver Checked has about 75 businesses from the Washington, D.C., area that have applied for the vetting process, said Beth Dresing, vice president for marketing for Silver Nation. Dresing said her company hopes to have Senior Shield running in South Carolina by Jan. 15.
South Carolina is the first state the company has teamed with to do the checks, which make sure a company is licensed, has insurance and a fidelity bond.
Joel Sawyer, spokesman for Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, said the governor is concerned about state money being spent on the program because of the current financial crisis that is leading to budget cuts and because the money is going to an organization where expenditures cannot be readily tracked.
“The idea of protecting our senior population from fraud is a laudable idea,” Sawyer said. “We have a number of questions about whether this proposal is going to achieve that end.
“It needs to be transparent. … We need to know how our tax dollars are being spent.”
The conservative think-tank South Carolina Policy Council says the program amounts to a tax on businesses.
“It forces businesses to pay a fee or risk their ability to compete in the marketplace,” said Bryan Cox, spokesman for the Policy Council, which advocates for conservative issues, including school choice. “Anytime you offer a government endorsement for anything in exchange for contributions, it's a de facto tax.”
Questions about how Senior Shield would be structured were first examined in a story this week by The Post and Courier of Charleston. The story pointed out that Miles – a former South Carolina secretary of state – had incorrectly filed incorporation papers with his old office stating that Senior Shield would be a for-profit company. Miles has since corrected the paperwork to show it as a nonprofit.
Miles is the registered agent for Senior Shield, which has no employees. Miles is not paid by the nonprofit organization, but is responsible for soliciting sponsors and signing contracts for marketing.