TALLAHASSEE — The head of the Senate committee in charge of elder affairs vowed Tuesday to revive efforts to toughen the rules for assisted living facilities — and close the most dangerous ALFs.
As the state Legislature met Tuesday for the first time in 2013, Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, chair of the Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, said she plans to bring back legislation that sank at the end of last year's session.
At the hearing, resident advocates and ALF operators tried to sway lawmakers through passionate testimony. Elder advocates called for more oversight and tougher punishment for rogue facilities, while industry leaders warned that more regulations could put the homes out of business.
Many people in the packed committee room held copies of the Miami Herald's 2011 Neglected to Death series, distributed by Senate staff before the meeting. The Herald's two-year series revealed that at least one ALF resident dies from starvation, beatings or neglect at little-regulated homes in Florida per month.
"There's so much information out there and so much that needs to be done, and we can't drop the ball on this," Sobel said. "This is a very, very important issue, and this committee is going to get it done."
The Agency for Healthcare Administration, which oversees ALFs, recommended proposals similar to those scrapped by the Legislature last year, from increased education requirements for administrators to a state website that would allow potential residents to shop facilities and rate them.
Several witnesses asked for more unannounced visits to facilities. Under current law, inspectors visit the state's 6,000 facilities only once every two years, said Jim Crochet, Florida's long-term care ombudsman.
"The more active we are in the facilities monitoring them up front, the less they will fester," he said. "We're hoping we can improve with time to meet that goal of four visits per year."
Although Sobel says "now is the time" to address ALF reform, she could face a daunting task in 2013, with momentum waning.
Change seemed inevitable at this time in 2012, with Gov. Rick Scott promising to clean up the industry and his ALF task force rolling out some of the most forceful reform proposals in decades.
Former Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, a vocal elder-advocate, got behind the issue. And a Miami-Dade County grand jury called for reforms. But Storms couldn't convince the House to take up the bill as the clock ticked down the final day of session.
This year, Storms has left the Legislature and Scott's task force has unveiled a second, more business-friendly round of proposals.
Meanwhile, industry leaders and their lobbyists seem to have made headway with lawmakers, some of whom expressed concern during the meeting that ALFs have a hard enough time staying afloat under existing regulations.
"Many of these facilities are already strapped; they're trying to balance quality care with their staffing needs and that sort of thing," said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla. "I don't want to do anything to take away from their ability to care for their residents."
Brian Lee, director of Families for Better Care, said industry leaders want lawmakers to believe that problems are being adequately addressed by relatively modest adjustments to existing rules. A panel of ALF operators, policy makers, agency heads and resident advocates are in the final stages of hammering out those changes, which can be made within existing law.
"This is simply rearranging deck chairs; this piecemeal approach won't work," Lee told senators. "Residents need comprehensive, resident-focused new laws."