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ALF task force renews reform effort

Written by Fcadmin | 16 May 2012

By Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida - Advocates for the elderly were crushed earlier this year when – after Gov. Rick Scott and top lawmakers vowed to better protect the 80,000 residents of assisted living facilities – no legislation was passed. Months of reports in the Miami Herald of people dying in ALFs statewide – a near-monthly occurrence since 2002 – prompted Scott to appoint a task force to investigate and a Miami-Dade grand jury to push for tightened oversight.
But despite the public momentum, House and Senate leaders couldn't agree on a legislative remedy. After the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill to beef up inspections of troubled ALFs and shut down the worst offenders, the House refused to take up the measure.

Now, though, reform efforts are ramping up again, with the governor's ALF task force resuming its meetings in June, said Jane Johnson, health and human services policy coordinator for the governor's office.

The panel will add two new members to better represent consumers, one from AARP and one from the Florida Life Care Residents Association, Johnson said. It will hold three meetings at three locations around the state and send its report – including suggested legislation – to the governor in September.

That comes as welcome news to many of the 300 volunteers of Florida's Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, whose job is to advocate for elders who are frail and often mentally ill or isolated from their families.

"We were all holding our breath, and then, unfortunately, nothing got done," said Carol Weideman, an 11-year veteran of the program and its state council chair. "We're hoping this next year will be more productive."

"A bunch of what we recommended was included in the Senate bills [that failed]," said Larry Polivka, director and scholar in residence at the Claude Pepper Foundation, who chaired the workgroup. "Most of us would like to see those recommendations taken up again. It's really important that something be passed next year."

The original task force included Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, Charles Corley, Secretary of the Department of Elder Affairs and Elizabeth Dudek, Secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration. Also represented were members of the long term care industry, the state long-term care ombudsman, advocates and ALF administrators. The panel held three meetings statewide and heard from more than 75 people.

Its recommendations included more inspections, especially of facilities with poor records, increased administrator qualifications, better training for ALF staff, and more reporting of resident data. It also suggested the state have more enforcement power and other changes.

Storms incorporated many of the recommendations into a bill that was passed resoundingly by the Senate, but couldn't find a House sponsor.

Despite the failure of the legislation, though, the ombudsman program has continued to call for another key recommendation: protection from arbitrary eviction for ALF residents. State law allows ALF administrators to evict residents for almost any reason on 45 days’ notice, but the residents – who rent their units – can’t challenge an eviction in court.

"The residents are often fearful of asking for too much because the [ALF] administrators can give them 45 days' notice and they're gone," said Jeanne Anastasi, a volunteer with the ombudsman program. "That makes them a little fearful to advocate for themselves."

The program investigated 75 inappropriate ALF eviction complaints during 2010-11, according to Jim Crochet, the state ombudsman, as well as 72 complaints of fear of retaliation.

"Almost three-quarters of the residents have no one," said advocate Win Hoffman. "When I ask if their relatives are nearby, their eyes are downcast. The ombudsmen are the only people showing them any care."

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