Florida's most vulnerable in danger of abuse

Published July 30, 2012

Recent newspaper investigations have found rampant abuse and neglect in Florida's assisted-living facilities and now at a rehabilitation center for brain-injured patients in Hardee County. What these stories have in common is an indictment of Florida's regulators. Whether it is due to a lack of resources, regulatory tools or will, the state is failing to protect some of its most vulnerable residents. The result is that the state's frail, elderly and injured are left to try to protect themselves.

The latest scandal involves the Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation, a 196-bed for-profit facility that is one of the largest brain-injury centers in the country. This is where patients who often can't make decisions for themselves are sent to recover from traumatic brain injuries. But an investigation by Bloomberg News found that abuse is common at FINR. One patient was so desperate to escape his beatings that he swallowed fishhooks to get transferred out.

The news report found that 477 allegations of abuse or neglect have flooded into Florida's Department of Children and Families about the facility since 2005, including 36 that were verified by state investigators. According to patients' families or state agencies, at least five residents have died with allegations that abuse or a lack of care was a contributing factor. Patients say they are on the receiving end of beatings and "take-downs" where they are knocked to the floor and restrained by staff. One patient was allegedly hit repeatedly for two hours last September. Videotapes seem to confirm the brutality and have led prosecutors to bring charges against three former employees.

In addition to the abuse, the Bloomberg investigation suggests that FINR provides inadequate rehabilitation while milking their patients and insurers for bills that reach $1,850 per day.

Why is this facility still operating? Florida's various regulators point fingers at one another. DCF says it investigates allegations but then sends any abuse reports to Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration and the state Department of Health as well as law enforcement for follow-up. AHCA says it inspected the facility, but the issues it found "did not fall under the agency's purview," so it too made referrals to other agencies. Meanwhile patients continue to be at risk.

The troubles at FINR are not unique. A recent two-year investigation by the Miami Herald into the abuse of elderly residents at assisted-living facilities throughout the state found similar problems. For decades lawmakers in the sway of industry lobbyists had rolled back regulations on ALFs, resulting in residents being subjected to dangerous conditions with nowhere to turn.

Florida's ineffectual state regulators are endangering its most vulnerable residents. If more money or stronger regulations are needed, they should be demanding those resources. State officials need to stop pointing fingers and start doing their jobs.