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A Times Editorial

Protecting Florida's most vulnerable

Gangrene, starvation, burns and drug overdoses. Those preventable causes of death claimed the lives of at least 70 vulnerable Floridians in the past decade, all of them living in assisted living facilities. More than 200 other residents also died under questionable circumstances. Yet, even as those deaths were occurring, Tallahassee regulators scaled back their enforcement on assisted living facilities and state legislators further reduced government oversight.

Those facts, juxtaposed in a recent article in the Miami Herald, underscore the lives put at risk when leaders capitulate to a politically involved industry's demands. Gov. Rick Scott apparently understands that. He wisely vetoed another deregulation law earlier this year, and he has formed a task force to propose assisted living reforms. Lawmakers should follow his lead and put this embarrassing breach of public trust behind them.

The Herald article was the latest in the newspaper's series to examine deaths at assisted living facilities, but it was the first to highlight just how indifferent Tallahassee's Republican leadership had become over the years to protecting the vulnerable to satisfy campaign promises for less regulation and spending.

The Agency of Health Care Administration — the very bureaucracy tasked with regulating the industry — reduced its inspections 90 percent in the face of budget cuts. Nor did it stand in the way when the industry demanded less regulation.

The Republican-led Legislature in 2009 passed a law that all but assured that assistant living residents — who are by definition are incapable of taking care of themselves — were wholly on their own. In a case of "out of sight, out of mind," regulators were no longer required to provide lawmakers the number of adverse incidents such as deaths and injuries at facilities. Nor did regulators have the power to call a doctor when they suspected inadequate care by facilities.

Then, this past spring, lawmakers sought to go further, approving a bill that would have stripped the state's power to revoke licenses of homes with two or more Class I violations — breaches often found in death cases — or levy some fines. Scott wisely vetoed the bill.

Sponsors of legislation over the years, contacted by the Herald, seem to suffer collective amnesia. Sen. Don Gaetz of Destin, the anticipated next Senate president, and Rep. Rene Garcia of Hialeah, who has received significant campaign contributions from the industry, both claim they had no idea their bills would put vulnerable residents at risk.

But they should have. Members of their own party, notably Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, were aware of abuses and were trying to increase regulations. Now Storms is serving on a task force appointed by Scott — which includes both providers and resident advocates — to consider how to improve protections. At last week's meeting of the task force, Storms proved once again her ability to see past Tallahassee's perverted priorities to protect Floridians. When some providers argued that regulations are confusing, she evoked the story of a resident who died after falling and urinating on a power strip. Regulations did not kill that woman.

Reputable providers need to accept that the industry has pushed too far on deregulation, ultimately allowing bad actors to sully the entire industry's reputation. They should welcome the chance to work with lawmakers and resident advocates to craft meaningful reform. Legislative leaders, too, after a shocking abdication of their responsibility, need to commit to holding the industry to account in the future. Scott, as pro-business and fiscally conservative as they come in Florida, appears to get the point that on this issue the state's job is to protect vulnerable Floridians. Now everyone else in Tallahassee needs to, too.

Protecting Florida's most vulnerable 08/13/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 12, 2011 5:22pm]
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