Minnesota Republicans introduced legislation on Thursday intended to repair the state's broken system for investigating allegations of elder abuse, while lashing out at the Dayton administration for failing to act sooner as thousands of maltreatment allegations went uninvestigated.
The legislation would streamline the state's abuse reporting process, create new civil penalties for facilities that mislead consumers, and lift the layers of secrecy that often surround state investigations of maltreatment in senior homes. The bill would also enshrine in state law the rights of Minnesota families to use cameras in the rooms of their loved ones — further empowering consumers and potentially ending years of confusion over the use of electronic surveillance in senior homes.
The Republican proposal comes two days after Gov. Mark Dayton, joined by a bipartisan group of legislators, unveiled his own package of reforms aimed at protecting the roughly 82,000 seniors who live in senior care facilities across the state. Unlike the Republican proposal, Dayton's plan called for the immediate licensure of assisted-living facilities, a fast-growing but lightly regulated segment of the care industry, and tougher criminal penalties against perpetrators of abuse. The Republican package, by contrast, calls for further study of these issues through special task forces.
"There's no sugarcoating it. The Dayton-Smith administration failed elderly and vulnerable Minnesotans and their families," said Sen. Karin Housley, chairwoman of the Senate Aging and Long-Term Care Policy committee. "We owe them answers, accountability, and action this session."
Housley, who is from St. Marys Point near Afton, is running for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Al Franken and now occupied by Democrat Tina Smith.
Both reform packages come amid a sharp rise in reports of abuse and neglect at senior care facilities across the state, and after reports surfaced late last year that the state's system for handling abuse allegations was being badly mismanaged. In a scathing report released last week, the Minnesota Legislative Auditor concluded that the Minnesota Department of Health failed to meet its responsibilities to protect vulnerable seniors because of "poor internal operations" and the state's unnecessarily complex regulatory structure.
The rival bills set the stage for a broader debate over the government's role in regulating the senior care industry, and the ability of residents of these facilities to control their own environment. There is broad agreement that Minnesota's laws aimed at protecting vulnerable adults have not kept pace with the changing landscape of residential care for seniors. At the same time, representatives from the senior care industry and some key Republican lawmakers have warned against overregulation in response to the current crisis.
For now, Sen. Housley and other Republicans are limiting their proposal to a handful of major reforms around enhancing transparency and enforcement. The Dayton-backed plan includes many of these changes but would give the state government far greater authority over the day-to-day operations of senior care facilities.
The Dayton proposal to license the state's 1,200 assisted-living facilities likely would subject these facilities to more inspections and a bevy of rules around patient care. Eventually, these facilities could face a similar level of oversight as nursing homes, which are licensed. Given the complexity, Republicans are urging a more gradual phase-in of regulations, involving more input from the senior care industry.
"This is a really big issue," Housley said of licensing assisted-living. "Let's not do a knee-jerk reaction."
While ideological differences persist, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognize the electoral risk of not acting to strengthen laws against elder abuse during an election year, said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, chairman of the Senate Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee. "If we solve the problem, it will not be relevant in the election," Abeler said. "If we don't solve it, then it will come up more and more on the campaign trail, and whoever is blamed for not solving it will face problems."
Although lawmakers have repeatedly claimed the issue of elder abuse is bipartisan, the reform proposals have been attacked along party lines.
At a news conference early Thursday, Housley said Dayton's plan did not go far enough in addressing highly publicized breakdowns at the Department of Health's Office of Health Facility Complaints (OHFC), which is charged with investigating complaints at the state's nearly 2,000 senior homes. She also said it was "extremely disappointing" that Dayton did not mention the issue of elder abuse as a priority during his final State of the State speech on Wednesday.
Housley also criticized the Dayton package as being "one-sided," noting that it was largely the product of a work group of senior advocacy organizations. "It's very important that [the industry] be part of the conversation, and they were not part of the conversation," she said. "It was just one side."
Even so, the legislation introduced by Housley includes a number of key reforms sought by elder advocacy groups and recommended by the Legislative Auditor's Office.
For instance, it would establish stricter legislative oversight of the OHFC, by requiring the office to provide regular reports on the number of abuse reports that are filed and investigated.
The state office would also be required to publish all substantiated claims of maltreatment on its website.
The Republican bill would also strengthen the state's enforcement powers by enabling the Department of Health to impose immediate fines when health and safety violations occur. Currently, assisted-living facilities and home care providers are given an opportunity to correct serious violations before being penalized, even in cases where a vulnerable adult has died, the Legislative Auditor's Office found.
A five-part Star Tribune series published in November found that the OHFC had failed to keep pace with a dramatic surge in abuse and neglect allegations at senior care facilities. The number of maltreatment allegations received by the OHFC has swelled from about 4,000 in 2010 to more than 25,000 in 2016. Yet only 3 percent were investigated on site by state inspectors in 2016.
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres