Just weeks after ordering a crackdown on troubled assisted living facilities, Florida Gov. Rick Scott is launching a rare task force to search for ways to improve homes that have left frail residents to fend for themselves in squalor and dangerous conditions.
The governor ordered the special panel at the same time he announced another rare move: his veto of legislation that was championed by the powerful industry to help ALF owners get around red tape and regulations.
Both actions represent a dramatic reversal for a state that has long been stripping away protections at assisted living facilities, now the signature homes for frail senior citizens and Floridians with mental illness.
The task force was prompted by a Miami Herald series last month that exposed sweeping neglect and abuse that left scores of people dead at the hands of their caregivers over the last decade.
There have been recent reports of certain facilities falling short of what is currently required by statutes and rules, and what should reasonably be expected by residents, the governor wrote in a statement explaining his veto.
His panel is being started at the same time another initiative is under way by the Legislature to investigate serious failures in state oversight of the states 2,850 homes.
State Sen. Ronda Storms, a Valrico Republican who pledged last month to launch a legislative investigation into the industry, said she was heartened by the governors actions, but cautioned that any task force needs to be balanced. "Honest brokers, she said. Thats how this is going to turn."
She said the panel should include industry representatives, but also those people who are advocates for the elderly, including the statewide Ombudsman Program. If the task force is represented by all sides owners and residents "then its wonderful. It gives me hope.
The head of the industrys largest lobby said she, too, hoped the panel would include all sides. Pat Lange, director of the Florida Assisted Living Association, said, We want to be a part of the solution.
Storms the powerful lawmaker who chairs the Senate panel that oversees children, families and the elderly said she wants to examine some of the problems raised in the Heralds series, Neglected to Death, including a drop in state inspections of homes by 33 percent, and a pattern of reducing penalties against bad homes.
The Herald found that the state could have shut down 70 homes in 2008 and 2009 for such violations as abuse and neglect leading to deaths, but closed just seven.
The governors veto came as a surprise to advocates on both sides of the issue.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Matt Hudson, a Naples Republican and Rep. Daphne Campbell, a Miami Shores Democrat was supported by the powerful ALF industry, but drew criticism from advocates for the elderly, who said it would have kept the public from knowing about bad homes. It would have eliminated a requirement that regulators report yearly on homes that get into trouble for violating state law. The bill also exempted ALF owners from reporting lawsuits against their facilities to state regulators.
Said Scott in his statement: Until a more deliberate examination of the regulation and oversight of assisted living facilities is conducted, I do not believe it is prudent to relax any reporting requirements for assisted living facilities.