The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Elderly, disabled targets for more abuse

Do Florida’s elderly, disabled and mentally ill have great big targets on their backs to be abused or worse?

It sure seems so from the way lawmakers are ignoring their needs and winking at potential abusers. And the governor, who has finally embraced a more practical and compassionate agenda, has been of little help.

Legislation to strengthen oversight over assisted-living facilities appears doomed. If it goes down, it will be the second time that lawmakers turned their backs on the horrors so graphically revealed in The Miami Herald’s 2011 series Neglected to death: ALF residents locked in closets or bound with ropes. Others left stupefied with tranquilizers or sexually abused.

The series documented 70 deaths since 2002 at the hands of abusive or neglectful ALFs. Last year, Gov. Scott vowed action. There was none. He appointed a task force, but stacked it with industry insiders. And this year is shaping up to see the same shameful inaction. The bills in question are not even as stringent as last year’s.

The state Senate did pass a bill that mandates more training for ALF staff and requires facilities with at least one mental-health patient to acquire a specialty license. Compare that to last year’s effort that would have imposed tough penalties on facilities for instances of abuse and neglect and that would have stripped the state of the authority to make deals with ALFs for lesser penalties where preventable deaths occurred.

So why is this year’s diluted version of reform going nowhere fast in the House? Because in the eyes of too many lawmakers, the suffering inflicted upon the residents in the worst ALFs is nothing compared to the pain they stand to feel if they go against the deep-pocketed industry of ALFs.

Chalk that up as reason No. 1 for another abomination being played out in Tallahassee. By a 12-3 vote, legislation that will make it harder for aggrieved families to sue nursing homes skated through the Senate Rules Committee.

Right now, the law requires plaintiffs to present evidence of nursing-home abuse and misconduct at pretrial hearings. Plaintiffs don’t have to prove that the evidence is admissible. Proposed legislation would add another hurdle to an already difficult process, forcing families suing for punitive damages to present “clear and convincing” evidence to a judge, who then would decide if the case should move forward.

Industry supporters say that “predatory” lawyers use punitive damages as a way to inflate the cost of an eventual settlement. Opponents say that punitive damages are extremely difficult to get as it is, and that this new hurdle will give the worst nursing homes even less incentive to improve the quality of their care.

If the Legislature fails again to enact laws to protect people who are at the mercy of neglectful ALFs and nursing homes, state administrators will have to step up enforcement and punishment as the Agency for Health Care Administration did this month. AHCA revoked the license of the Hillandale Assisted Living Facility, operating in the Tampa Bay area. Young disabled adults were sexually abused, beaten, drugged and locked in closets. One resident was struck by a car and killed.

This has been a long time coming. AHCA, for too long, was part of the problem, at one point cutting back on inspections.

The Legislature, however, has yet to hold itself accountable to the most vulnerable ALF and nursing-home residents. With a week to go in the session, it’s still not too late for them to turn that around.

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