Editorial: Assisted living bill offers positive changes

Published May 5, 2015

After four years of delays and infighting, the Legislature has finally given Florida a chance to atone for letting elderly and mentally disabled citizens suffer in abusive assisted living homes. Lawmakers passed legislation that would give regulators new tools for monitoring and disciplining homes that do not measure up. The bill is far from perfect and needs diligent implementation by the very state agencies whose failures enabled horrific conditions to fester in the first place. But the changes should help protect the lives of more than 85,000 vulnerable citizens, and Gov. Rick Scott should honor them and sign the bill into law.

The Miami Herald published an expose of brutal and neglectful assisted living homes in 2011 and documented the official callousness that allowed them to exist. Residents in rogue homes starved, suffered with open sores and needlessly died. The Agency for Health Care Administration, the lead regulatory agency, documented repeated abuses but rarely closed homes down. In response to the articles, a governor's task force recommended numerous reforms and the agency under Secretary Elizabeth Dudek commendably revamped internal procedures. The Legislature, however, resisted repeated attempts to enact systematic change, finding one excuse after another to favor a powerful industry over the people it is supposed to protect.

This year's bill (HB 1001), sponsored by Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, requires new layers of employee training and background screening, doubles fines on homes that fail to correct deficiencies, sets specific standards for shutting down repeat violators, requires a special license for any home that admits a mentally ill resident, and establishes fines for retaliation against residents who complain about treatment.

Another smart provision designed to keep residents out of nursing homes gives new authority to assisted living workers to lend a hand with simple medical tasks such as conducting a blood sugar test, removing a nebulizer cap or turning on a CPAP machine.

The legislation also would reduce the frequency of inspections when homes demonstrate a good track record, which some critics characterize as a break for the industry. That was a task force recommendation designed to concentrate inspections and limited state resources on the most problematic homes.

Assisted living often works best in private homes, where a caretaker treats a few residents like family. But that homey, tucked-away atmosphere also presents regulatory challenges, particularly when state reimbursement for the poor is so meager that homes are tempted to cut corners. Decades ago, Florida was a leader in promoting quality assisted living as a humane alternative to nursing homes. This legislation would help reclaim that legacy.