A bill to create felony penalties for severe neglect of elderly and vulnerable adults ran into a crosscurrent of concerns from the care industry and legislators on Thursday, a setback for a proposal that advocates say would close a major loophole in state law.
After more than an hour of testimony and questions at the State Capitol, the bill was tabled by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. The various sides -- prosecutors, elder advocates, the health care industry and labor -- retreated to a meeting scheduled for next week to try to reach a compromise that has eluded them for more than two years.
Representatives of the industry -- nursing homes, group homes, hospitals and home care providers -- say that they support stiffer penalties for the worst cases of neglect but that they are concerned about the details of the current bill. Their lobbyist, Kevin Goodno, testified about the possibility of overzealous or misinformed prosecutors mistakenly going after the industry.
"When there's a charge against an individual caregiver or against a facility or an operator, that impacts their reputation," said Goodno, a former legislator and state commissioner of human services. "Even if the charge is never proven, all of a sudden you have that ... on a person's record and also something that can be researched with regard to the operating facility. So just the charge itself has an immense impact on the caregivers and the facilities that are out there."
Minnesota is one of only five states that doesn't have a felony provision for neglect of a vulnerable adult. The Star Tribune highlighted the issue in an investigation last year that examined abuse and neglect of the aged and vulnerable across Minnesota. Neglect cases, even those involving death, resulted in little or no jail time and minimal fines.
Prosecutors testified on Thursday that penalties for cruelty to an animal or neglect of a child are more severe than those for neglect of an elder or vulnerable adult. In one case highlighted for the committee, an elderly woman with dementia ended up in an emergency room with toenails 3 inches long, bed sores infested with maggots and a broken hip that had been untreated for a year. Her caregiver, a family member, was convicted of a gross misdemeanor and fined $100.
"Most speeding tickets cost more than that," said Amy Sweasy, a prosecutor with Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman's office.
The proposed law would carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison in the most severe cases. The bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the committee, remained confident some version would pass this session.
"Care providers have been, in many ways, avoiding the reality that's going to come eventually," Limmer said. "They like to lobby against this stuff ... The inevitability is going to be that Minnesota will have a felony charge against intended neglect of vulnerable adults."
Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777