State lawmaker criticizes assisted-living facility owners

Assisted living facility industry leaders faced off against advocates for elders and Floridians with mental illness in Tallahassee.

08/08/2011 5:00 AM

11/04/2011 11:27 AM

Owners of Florida assisted living facilities wanted a state panel investigating reports of resident abuses to understand one thing about their business: most homes treat their residents with kindness and respect.

Elder advocates wanted the owners to know they weren’t entirely buying it.

The clash of opinions dominated Monday’s first meeting of Gov. Rick Scott’s Assisted Living Workgroup, which generated some surprising fireworks as a feisty state lawmaker who prides herself on being a champion of children and elders squared off against several ALF owners and industry representatives who downplayed the need to reform the oversight of troubled homes.

Alberta Granger, speaking on behalf of the Florida Assisted Living Association, said many owners are “perplexed and confused” by the state’s patchwork of regulations, and by the dizzying number of acronym-studded state agencies that enforce them. Even within the same field office, Granger said, different inspectors interpret regulations in varying ways.

The industry group, Granger said, “fully supports residents’ rights and the care and safety of residents.” What the group calls “bad actors are painting with a brush across Florida, from the Panhandle to the Keys, that ALFs are terrible – and that’s not true,” she added.

But state Sen. Ronda Storms, who heads the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee and has been a vocal advocate for elders, would have none of it. Pointing to a recent story in The Miami Herald about a woman who died at an ALF after falling on the floor and then urinating on a power strip, she challenged Granger to show how confusing regulations kill or injure residents.

And she blasted Granger’s group and several owners on the panel for refusing to support legislation she’s championed that would make it harder for homes to kick out residents who complain about their treatment.

“FALA has not supported that,” Storms said. “Residents should not be in fear for their safety, or fear being put out on the street,” Storms said.

Scott appointed 14 members to the work group weeks after The Herald published a series of stories showing ALF regulators repeatedly caught homes breaking the law – including sometimes deadly abuse and neglect of elders and disabled people – but failed to shut down or even seriously punish the worst offenders. He announced the task force as he vetoed a bill that would have further eroded protections for consumers.

Many ALFs provide excellent care, said Jay Reeve, speaking for the Florida Council for Community Mental Health, a trade association for more than 75 not-for-profits. Members, he said, have seen “abuse, neglect, exploitation [and] deplorable conditions at some ALFs across the state.” But others seem to offer consistently good care, at more or less the same price.

“We need to study facilities that provide excellent care,” Reeve said, as the work group’s chairman, Larry Polivka, an expert in aging, shook his head in agreement.

Missing from the panel: A single person who lives in an ALF. Though the work group includes representatives of three industry groups and four ALF owners, Scott did not appoint any residents – though he did include advocates for elders and people with mental illness.

Bob Sharpe, head of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health, asked that a consumer or two be added to the panel. Polivka, scholar in residence at Florida State University’s Claude Pepper Center, said it would be difficult to expand the panel so late in the game, but that residents and their advocates have been encouraged to speak at upcoming meetings.

Rose Delaney, who heads the mental health consumers’ Florida Peer Network, suggested several of the owners and their supporters “step down so that consumers and family members can take their place.”

“I have had the opportunity to visit some of the facilities across the state, and have wondered why we have allowed this to go on,” Delaney said in a statement read by a colleague while she is recovering at home from an illness. “Think of how a frail senior must feel when being mistreated. Is this how we should allow them to have to live their final years?”

Delany said she has lived in a state psychiatric hospital, and had even been homeless before recovering from mental illness. Referring to a homeless shelter, she added: “The difference being it was clean, I didn’t have to worry about being abused or taken advantage of, and, yes, if something did happen with one of the other residents, I was not afraid to say something.”

Larry Sherberg, a panel member who owns the Lincoln Manor ALF in Hollywood, disputed that residents have no protection from retaliation, and suggested owners often discharge residents because they present a risk to other residents who can’t defend themselves. Sherberg called it “ironic” that volunteer ombudsmen take the side of residents who are being forced out, even if it means leaving others in peril.

The comment made Storms practically jump from her seat.

“The industry routinely, routinely objected to providing safety for existing residents,” the Valrico Republican said. She told the story of a 90-year-old woman who had been raped at an ALF in her Tampa Bay district, and how family members pressed her for legislation requiring owners to screen their residents to weed out potential violence – a measure the industry fought.

“The industry did what? Zero,” she said. “This is an attack on the ombudsmen I cannot let stand.”

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