Time is running out for Gov. Rick Scott and Florida House leaders to prove they will do more than talk about ensuring the safety of elders and take up the Senate's plans to address gaping holes in the regulation of assisted living facilities. With nearly one Florida ALF resident per month having died unnecessarily in the state since 2002, vulnerable seniors cannot wait another year for the state to act.
Florida was once a model of regulation and oversight for ALFs, but all that changed in recent years as the industry succeeded in getting rules loosened and inspections reduced. Last year lawmakers in Tallahassee pushed more than a dozen bills to weaken oversight of ALFs. That is, until a groundbreaking investigative series by the Miami Herald changed the conversation.
Herald writers exposed the squalid conditions and routine neglect suffered by ALF residents around the state. The report found that even after seniors died from caretaker abuse or dangerous living conditions, regulators refused to shutter facilities. In the past two years, state regulators could have shut down 70 facilities but only closed seven. There seemed to be no one looking out for the frail elderly, who had no voice in Tallahassee. Abuse and neglect cases doubled since 2005, yet during that time the state reduced crucial inspections by a third.
Since the story broke, Scott created an Assisted Living Work Group to make recommendations for improved quality and state oversight. But the Senate has been largely alone in championing immediate, concrete solutions in the legislative session that ends in three weeks on March 9. Committees run by Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, and Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, have produced plans (SB 2050 and SB 2074) that are expected to be merged in coming weeks.
Among the proposed changes are sharp increases in training and education requirements for administrators and staff. To address the problem of ALF staff forging records to conceal serious health and safety violations, criminal penalties would be imposed for such acts. Facilities would face closure if a resident dies from abuse or neglect. State agents would have to more frequently visit any facility that had a history of safety violations. And the Agency for Health Care Administration, which has done an abysmal job policing ALFs, would be stripped of discretion and mandated to conduct inspections and assess penalties.
Florida has a lot of catching up to do to give ALF residents and their relatives peace of mind that all licensed facilities will be high quality and safe. A first step is to pass legislation demonstrating that the days of deregulation, looking the other way, and second and third chances are over. The Senate is poised to do that. Now, governor and House Speaker Dean Cannon, it's your turn.