Assisted living facility reforms fail to pass

A last-ditch attempt to pass legislation to reform the state’s assisted living facilities, measures sought since a 2011 Miami Herald investigation revealed neglect, abuse and death of ALF residents, failed on the last day of Florida’s legislative session.

The Senate had passed a bill (SB 646) by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, which tightened oversight of Florida’s nearly 3,000 assisted living facilities, by a 38-0 vote on April 11, but a companion measure in the House never got any traction.

Still, the House could have passed the Senate bill.

To increase the odds of getting a bill passed, Sobel added the reforms to an omnibus healthcare bill (SB 966) sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, Fernandina Beach, that was later weighed down with dozens of amendments. With the clock ticking, the bill was never heard Friday afternoon.

“I am hugely disappointed,” said AARP Florida advocacy manager Jack McRay. “I think that in the next go-around, the Legislature ought to focus more on protecting residents of ALFs than protecting the industry.”

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 vowed to make improvements. He formed an ALF task force in 2011, which developed forceful reforms, but the House and Senate weren’t able to agree on a proposal based on its recommendations during the 2012 session.

While Sobel’s bill this session wasn’t as tough as last year’s effort, it did have regulations to help protect residents.

The Senate version of the bill would have ensured more standard inspections and required that homes with at least one mental health patient obtain a specialty license for limited mental health, and ensure the facility has a plan for a resident’s mental healthcare.

The bill would also have devised an ALF rating system and consumer guide.

It also called for more equitable fines for violations — larger facilities would pay larger fines than smaller ALFs.

Pat Lange, executive director of the Florida Assisted Living Association, said that the group thought this year’s legislation was a “more reasonable approach” than last year’s tougher reforms. She said the bill, and amendments in the Bean omnibus bill, closed some loopholes referring to fines and functions by staff.

Lange said “bad ALFs should be fined or closed. … We’d like to see something positive and move forward.”

State Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah, sponsor of the House version of the bill, said he feels there was “tremendous progress” made this year.

“I want to make sure that we protect the people who live in those places, and some of those conditions are not good, but by the same token I can’t shut down an industry,” Gonzalez said.

Yet the bill’s backers say residents have been waiting too long for reform.

Brian Lee, executive director of Families for Better Care, said his research showed there were 100 sanctions and fines against ALFs just this month.

“Sen. Sobel made a valiant effort to get something done, but we might as well stick a fork in ALF reforms.”

The elderly, he said, “drive our economy. If we can’t take better care of them then they won’t want to come here anymore.”

Sobel said she would take up the issue again next year. “We’re the voice of the seniors in the ALFS, their representatives, and our voice needs to be stronger, and it will be.”

The AARP’s McRay cautioned that “it will be unfortunate if it takes another travesty or travesties to get something done.”

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