Neglected to Death

Florida task force to help boost troubled assisted living facilities

Just weeks after ordering a crackdown on troubled assisted living facilities, Florida Gov. Rick Scott is launching a rare task force to search for ways to improve homes that have left frail residents to fend for themselves in squalor and dangerous conditions.

The governor ordered the special panel at the same time he announced another rare move: his veto of legislation that was championed by the powerful industry to help ALF owners get around red tape and regulations.

Both actions represent a dramatic reversal for a state that has long been stripping away protections at assisted living facilities, now the signature homes for frail senior citizens and Floridians with mental illness.

The task force was prompted by a Miami Herald series last month that exposed sweeping neglect and abuse that left scores of people dead at the hands of their caregivers over the last decade.

“There have been recent reports of certain facilities falling short of what is currently required by statutes and rules, and what should reasonably be expected by residents,’’ the governor wrote in a statement explaining his veto.

His panel is being started at the same time another initiative is under way by the Legislature to investigate serious failures in state oversight of the state’s 2,850 homes.

State Sen. Ronda Storms, a Valrico Republican who pledged last month to launch a legislative investigation into the industry, said she was heartened by the governor’s actions, but cautioned that any task force needs to be balanced. "Honest brokers,’’ she said. “That’s how this is going to turn."

She said the panel should include industry representatives, but also those people who are advocates for the elderly, including the statewide Ombudsman Program. If the task force is represented by all sides — owners and residents — "then it’s wonderful. It gives me hope.”

The head of the industry’s largest lobby said she, too, hoped the panel would include all sides. Pat Lange, director of the Florida Assisted Living Association, said, “We want to be a part of the solution.’’

Storms — the powerful lawmaker who chairs the Senate panel that oversees children, families and the elderly — said she wants to examine some of the problems raised in the Herald’s series, Neglected to Death, including a drop in state inspections of homes by 33 percent, and a pattern of reducing penalties against bad homes.

The Herald found that the state could have shut down 70 homes in 2008 and 2009 for such violations as abuse and neglect leading to deaths, but closed just seven.

The governor’s veto came as a surprise to advocates on both sides of the issue.

The bill — sponsored by Rep. Matt Hudson, a Naples Republican and Rep. Daphne Campbell, a Miami Shores Democrat — was supported by the powerful ALF industry, but drew criticism from advocates for the elderly, who said it would have kept the public from knowing about bad homes. It would have eliminated a requirement that regulators report yearly on homes that get into trouble for violating state law. The bill also exempted ALF owners from reporting lawsuits against their facilities to state regulators.

Said Scott in his statement: “Until a more deliberate examination of the regulation and oversight of assisted living facilities is conducted, I do not believe it is prudent to relax any reporting requirements for assisted living facilities.”

A spokesman for Scott declined to discuss the veto with The Miami Herald Monday night, and a spokeswoman for AHCA could not be reached for comment.

Though neither the governor nor the Legislature have begun their initiatives, any changes to the state’s ALF law — one of the oldest in the nation — are expected to call for increased inspections of facilities and raising the qualifications of ALF administrators, now among the lowest in the U.S.

If such changes occur, the provisions would be among the first of their kind in years, said Storms, who tried unsuccessfully three years ago to increase the frequency of inspections and to ramp up penalties for troubled homes.

Storms said she plans to launch the interim project soon, with input from senators Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat, Chris Smith, an Oakland Park Democrat, and Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican.

“It’s back on the table,’’ she said of her 2008 overhaul of the ALF law that was defeated in the House. Too much regulation isn’t good, Storms said, but “lackadaisical oversight is deadly.”

While the formation of the governor’s task force was seen by advocates as a welcome step toward reforming the state’s ALF law, they were elated over his veto of House Bill 4045.

State Rep. Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a Tallahassee Democrat who was one of three minority members in the House who voted against the measure, wrote to Scott last month urging him to torpedo it, saying the bill would “impact the quality of life for seniors living in Florida’s assisted living facilities.”

Rehwinkel Vasilinda voted against the bill “because I am concerned that a combination of financial constraints and absence of state oversight will put [ALFs} in a difficult position to cut back further than they should at the expense of those whose life depend on their care – our seniors.”

The bill also drew the ire of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, an open government advocacy group that argued the measure would “help to keep serious problems at ALFs less visible to other agencies, service providers and ombudsman councils and further erode oversight of facilities that care for the most vulnerable among us — the elderly and the mentally ill.”

“As The Miami Herald has reported in a series of articles this month, residents of some of these state facilities already have been abused or ignored and have died as a result of poor oversight and lack of enforcement,” the foundation’s president, Barbara A. Petersen, wrote in a May 11 letter to Scott. “In light of these outrageous incidents as reported in The Miami Herald, it is obvious that this is not the time to eliminate these reporting requirements.”

On Monday, Petersen expressed relief that Scott had vetoed the measure, one of two bills the foundation targeted for their potential to weaken the public’s ability to obtain information. The measure, she said, would have “jeopardized the well-being of people in our state who are least capable of taking care of themselves, of speaking for themselves.”