Just weeks before the Legislature convenes, lawmakers and consumer groups are already gearing up for a major push to reform state laws aimed at protecting seniors from abuse and neglect.
On Thursday, Sen. Karin Housley, the chairwoman of the Senate Family Care and Aging Committee, renewed her call for strengthening protections for the roughly 85,000 Minnesotans who live in senior care facilities across the state.
“The mission that I plan on pursuing in this [legislative] session is: No senior in Minnesota will be left behind,” said Housley, a Republican from St. Marys Point, at a news event.
As Housley was outlining her proposal, leaders of a group representing families of abuse victims were busy working the hallways of the State Capitol, pushing their own package of changes to the state’s system for regulating senior homes. Their efforts are being supported by AARP Minnesota, the state’s largest senior advocacy group, which this week launched an online petition urging leaders in both houses of the Legislature to make elder care reform a top priority.
“The politics have changed, and legislators have gotten the message that elder abuse is a major concern of their constituents,” said Kristine Sundberg, president of Elder Voice Family Advocates, a volunteer group seeking better care for seniors. “We will not accept half measures in 2019.”
Last spring, a broad-based effort to reform Minnesota’s system for protecting seniors collapsed amid partisan divisions and stiff opposition from the senior care industry. Yet the coming session is already shaping up to be different. Unlike a year ago, there appears to be bipartisan support for several key reforms. Foremost among them is a proposal to establish a licensing framework for the state’s fast-growing but lightly regulated assisted-living industry.
The campaign to change Minnesota’s laws protecting seniors began in earnest after the Star Tribune published a special report in November 2017 chronicling breakdowns in the state’s handling of elder abuse investigations and the lack of oversight of the state’s roughly 1,200 assisted-living facilities. Minnesota is the only state in the nation that does not license such facilities, which makes it difficult for regulators to create and enforce minimum standards of care, according to a state working group.
As it stands, the licensing of assisted-living facilities appears to have bipartisan support, with the leaders of long-term care committees in both houses of the Legislature supporting the measure.
Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, the incoming chair of the House Subcommittee on Aging and Long-Term Care, said licensing would enable the state to establish basic standards for staffing and training, as well as rules around discharging residents and criteria for dementia care. “If we don’t have licensure, there is no accountability,” she said. Schultz said she expects elder care legislation to pass early in the session.
Patti Cullen, the head of the senior care industry’s largest trade group, Care Providers of Minnesota, said her group also supports licensure for assisted living and has been participating in a state work group to develop a framework.
Beyond licensing, a coalition of senior organizations — including AARP Minnesota, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and Elder Voice Family Advocates — is renewing its push for stronger consumer safeguards and an expansion of resident rights.
Their legislative agenda for 2019 is ambitious. It includes changes to state law that would grant victims’ families access to abuse investigation reports, protections against arbitrary evictions and retaliation, and a “private right of action” for lawsuits when seniors are abused. These groups are also looking to enshrine in state law the right of people to place cameras in senior facilities to monitor their loved ones.
“There is more interest from all parties in getting something done,” said Mary Jo George, associate state director of advocacy at AARP Minnesota.