Gov. Rick Scott has a legal and moral obligation to come to the rescue of the state's elderly and mentally ill who have suffered shocking neglect and abuse in the state's assisted living facilities. State regulators have long known of the problems but refuse to do much about them, with lax enforcement occurring for years under multiple governors. Scott did not make this mess, but he has inherited it and he has the responsibility to clean it up.
The scandal came to light through the efforts of a team of Miami Herald reporters who spent a year reviewing thousands of state inspections, police reports and other records and conducted dozens of interviews with operators and residents. More than 25 years ago, Florida was at the forefront of establishing sweeping legal protections for residents of assisted living facilities. But what once was a model of regulation and oversight has devolved into a system that ignores dangerous conditions and abuse of seniors.
The Herald found that residents in some assisted living facilities live in conditions that are not fit for human habitation, sleeping on filthy mattresses surrounded by cracked, moldy walls and denied adequate nutrition. In other facilities, residents languish without their medications for a host of physical ailments and mental illness. Some homes are just plain dangerous — residents have been beaten, forcibly restrained, drugged into submission or medically neglected, sometimes to death.
The conclusion is undeniable: The Agency for Health Care Administration, which is charged with overseeing Florida's 2,850 assisted living facilities, is putting lives at risk by failing to promptly act on legitimate complaints and shut down the worst facility operators.
Despite increasing levels of abuse and neglect, Florida has cut inspections to once every two years instead of every year, as most large states do. And when violations are found, decisive action is rarely taken. Time and again, facilities with dozens of serious violations have been allowed to remain open for years without changing their ways.
In the past two years, regulators could have shut down 70 homes but ended up closing only seven. For instance, Briarwood Manor in Broward County was the subject of more than 1,200 police and rescue calls in the past five years, including one for a vicious stabbing, yet it remains open. Sometimes the AHCA only acts to close an abusive home after other state agencies or law enforcement intervene and force its hand.
In response to its reported failures, the AHCA had very little to say other than to claim that it takes the law's responsibilities "very seriously." Scott was also vague, saying that he hadn't read the Herald story but had spoken to the current head of the AHCA, Secretary Elizabeth Dudek, who told him she's committed to doing "a very good job."
Scott can get more animated about the elimination of regulation than its enforcement. But people's lives are at stake. He needs to do much more, including calling for an investigation of the state agency, stepping up inspections of assisted living facilities and demanding that facilities with serious violations are closed and their licenses revoked.
The Floridians in these facilities are among the most helpless and vulnerable, and they rely upon the state to protect them. The governor sets the state's priorities, and correcting this deplorable situation should be at the top.