ALF reform bill stalled in House

TALLAHASSEE For the second year in a row, legislation to reform the state’s assisted living facilities in the wake of a Miami Herald investigation revealing neglect, abuse and death of ALF residents appears in trouble.

The Senate passed a bill earlier this month that aims to tighten oversight of Florida’s 3,015 assisted living facilities 38-0, but its House companion remains trapped in committee. While it’s possible a bill could be heard in the House, supporters say their hopes are fading.

“It will be an insult to the elderly people of Florida and their loved ones if the session again ends without an ALF bill in place,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, sponsor of SB 646. “The bill needs to be a priority.”

The House bill could be passed as an amendment to another measure, according to House rules. It could also be possible for the House to pass the Senate bill, though since the two versions aren’t identical, it complicates the process. The House also could pluck the bill from its final committee if two-thirds of members agree.

“I never say a bill is dead till it’s dead,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. “We still have time.”

AARP Florida advocacy manager Jack McRay said he fears “we’re about to see the same scenario as last year. It’s an absolute travesty for the state of Florida and residents living in ALFs.”

Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah, sponsor of the House measure, HB 1319, puts the bill’s chances of passing as “50-50.” Gonzalez said the Senate version “doesn’t necessarily look like what I would like my bill to look like. I’ve got a few amendments.”

Gonzalez said he wants to “go after those who are doing things they’re not supposed to be doing,” but adds, “I don’t want to hurt the industry and the small ALF owners who are actually doing the right thing.”

He said he wants to prevent reputable ALFs, which he says are mostly “small businesses,” from being hit by sanctions "that don’t really amount to anything.”

Brian Lee, executive director of Families for Better Care, said, "It’s pretty sad that the House is so concerned about protecting the industry. The prevailing question should be how to protect residents."

Legislators have been trying to pass reforms since a Herald investigation found that at least 70 residents of assisted living facilities had died from abuse and neglect since 2002. After the series, Gov. Rick Scott promised to clean up the industry. He formed an ALF task force in 2011, which developed forceful reforms, but the House and Senate weren’t able to pass a proposal based on its recommendations during the 2012 session.

Sobel said that while this bill isn’t quite as strong as last year’s effort, it offers measures to “help and protect” the more than 80,000 elderly residents of ALFs. The bill would mandate additional training, provide more consistency in dealing with troubled ALFs and require a facility with at least one mental health patient to obtain a specialty license. She said she has included input from Gonzalez in the bill.

“I thought this would be easy,” said Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who also proposed ALF legislation that didn’t advance. “I wonder how many more of our seniors have to suffer in a few assisted living facilities for the House to get this.”

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