Rushed to the emergency room, the elderly woman was clad in a filthy hospital gown, covered with head lice, scabies on her face, feces caked under her fingernails — and a pressure sore on her heel.
For years, the woman had lived in a Hollywood assisted-living facility owned by one of the most powerful leaders in the Florida ALF industry: Larry Sherberg.
Just days after his home was slapped with a $1,000 fine last summer for failing to properly care for the resident, Sherberg appeared in Miami as a member of the governor’s task force to reform troubled homes.
With the special panel set to meet again Friday in Fort Lauderdale, Sherberg is once more emerging as the man to defend the industry while his own 56-bed home undergoes increased scrutiny by regulators.
In the past three years, the Agency for Health Care Administration found his home violated nearly a dozen provisions of the same law that Sherberg has targeted in Tallahassee as chairman of the Florida Assisted Living Association’s legislative committee.
In 2009, FALA fought efforts to put the burden on owners to pull sick residents from homes — the same year his ALF was cited for failing to help the woman covered in lice and scabies.
Two years later, his group pressed for a law to strip the state’s power to impose additional fines on ALFs the same year his home was found failing to give crucial psychiatric medication to a resident suffering from schizophrenia and housing a resident even after a doctor said the person should not be in an ALF.
Sherberg says he has “one mark on my record” in terms of fines, and that he has had only a handful of violations at the beige, two-story Lincoln Manor, which he has owned since 1986.
“When they come in here, they are like family,” said the former president of FALA. “I protect them. I’m [angry] about the few [violations] I’ve received. ”
He said he challenged AHCA over the case of the frail woman rushed to the hospital and the state eventually settled for half the fine. “We didn’t see them [lice and scabies]… the lady was under home healthcare.”
Records show that Sherberg’s Lincoln Manor has been hit with 12 violations since 2009, including four in December.
But elder advocates say the problems were serious enough that AHCA ordered plans of correction and the state ombudsman returned to the home in 2009 to see if the lice were gone.
“There were people there with lice. It was just pitiful,” said Clare Caldwell, then regional manager for the statewide ombudsman program who investigated the complaint. “The [resident] population he is working with is difficult. [But] it just made me sick. It was hot as Hades in there and there were flies everywhere.”
The flap over the violations — which have been corrected — come as elder advocates and industry leaders square off in a bitter debate over state oversight of ALFs, now the primary homes for seniors and people with mental illness in Florida.
The task force is expected to tackle heated issues that died in the House last year amid intense lobbying by FALA — including raising the qualifications for ALF managers, among the lowest in the nation.
A key member of the panel, Sherberg, 60, has argued that the push for stricter regulations — including harsher penalties — will hurt the industry.
Last year, during a task force meeting at Florida International University, he surprised some panel members by arguing that regulators should stop imposing fines on homes that break the law — and that any money from sanctions should go back to the homes to fix the problems.
“This affects the impartiality of the AHCA surveyors,” he said. “Fines should not be considered an income source [for the state] to shore up funding issues.”
Bentley Lipscomb, a former secretary for the Department of Elder Affairs, blasted the idea of dropping fines, saying they serve as a crucial deterrent.
“When are people going to wake up and realize that people are dying in these places? What’s it going to take?”
Regardless of whatever ideas come from the task force, advocates are skeptical that lawmakers will adopt them.
Just last year, The Miami Herald published a series, entitled “Neglected to Death,” that found dozens of people dying of abuse and neglect, with caretakers tying frail residents with ropes and forcing them into closets. But the task force appointed by the governor to recommend reforms saw its proposals killed in the House.
It was during those task force meetings that Sherberg clashed with advocates — even as he was battling regulators over the fine slapped on his home and incurring new violations.
Pat Lange, executive director of FALA, said Sherberg is “one of the most knowledgeable people in Florida on issues faced by ALFs — whether operational, financial or regulatory,” and should not be judged on his home’s recent inspections.
“No regulation is ever going to prevent or completely eliminate incidents,” she said.
But state Sen. Ronda Storms, a Valrico Republican who served on the task force last year with Sherberg, said he spent years fighting reforms — including two bills she proposed since 2008 — created to save lives.
“He needs to not be spending so much time [lobbying] anyway, and making sure the residents in his homes, his facilities, are properly cared for,” said Storms, who began pushing reforms after an ALF resident in her area was found languishing with a cancerous growth eating his face. “People who are appointed to the task force should have hands that are as clean as possible.”