TALLAHASSEE — Owners of Florida assisted living facilities wanted a state panel investigating reports of resident abuses to understand one thing about their business: Most homes treat their residents with kindness and respect.
Elder advocates wanted the owners to know they weren't entirely buying it.
The clash of opinions dominated Monday's first meeting of Gov. Rick Scott's Assisted Living Workgroup, which generated some surprising fireworks as a feisty state lawmaker who prides herself on being a champion of children and elders squared off against several ALF owners and industry representatives who downplayed the need to reform the oversight of troubled homes.
Alberta Granger, speaking on behalf of the Florida Assisted Living Association, said many owners are "perplexed and confused" by the state's patchwork of regulations, and by the dizzying number of acronym-studded state agencies that enforce them. Even within the same field office, Granger said, different inspectors interpret regulations in varying ways.
The industry group, Granger said, "fully supports residents' rights and the care and safety of residents. … Bad actors are painting with a brush across Florida, from the Panhandle to the Keys, that ALFs are terrible — and that's not true," she added.
But state Sen. Ronda Storms, a Valrico Republican who heads the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, would have none of it. Pointing to a recent story in the Miami Herald about a woman who died at an ALF after falling on the floor and then urinating on a power strip, she challenged Granger to show how confusing regulations kill or injure residents.
And she blasted Granger's group and several owners on the panel for refusing to support legislation she's championed that would make it harder for homes to kick out residents who complain about their treatment.
"Residents should not be in fear for their safety, or fear being put out on the street," Storms said.
Scott appointed 14 members to the work group weeks after the Herald published a series of stories showing ALF regulators repeatedly caught homes breaking the law — including sometimes deadly abuse and neglect of elders and disabled people — but failed to shut down or even seriously punish the worst offenders. He announced the task force as he vetoed a bill that would have further eroded protections for consumers.
Many ALFs provide excellent care, said Jay Reeve, speaking for the Florida Council for Community Mental Health, a trade association for more than 75 nonprofits. Members, he said, have seen "abuse, neglect, exploitation (and) deplorable conditions at some ALFs across the state." But others seem to offer consistently good care, at more or less the same price.
Reeve noted a need to study good care facilities, as the work group's chairman, Larry Polivka, an expert in aging, shook his head in agreement.
Missing from the panel: an ALF resident. Though the work group includes representatives of three industry groups and four ALF owners, Scott didn't appoint any residents, but did include advocates for elders and people with mental illness.
Polivka said it would be difficult to expand the panel so late in the game, but said residents and their advocates have been encouraged to speak at upcoming meetings. Rose Delaney, who heads the mental health consumers' Florida Peer Network, suggested several of the owners and their supporters "step down so that consumers and family members can take their place."
"I have had the opportunity to visit some of the facilities across the state, and have wondered why we have allowed this to go on," Delaney said in a statement read by a colleague while she is recovering at home from an illness. "Think of how a frail senior must feel when being mistreated. Is this how we should allow them to have to live their final years?"