In a blow to Gov. Mark Dayton and families of elder abuse victims, the 2018 Legislature adjourned without adopting a series of broad-based reforms to Minnesota’s flawed system for protecting vulnerable seniors from maltreatment.
Weeks of intense negotiation involving the Dayton administration, Republican legislators and a coalition of senior organizations over a bipartisan deal collapsed over the weekend, leaving few new protections for the estimated 85,000 Minnesotans who live in senior care facilities across the state.
All the major reforms sought by Dayton, including a licensing framework for the state’s fast-growing assisted-living industry and protections against arbitrary evictions, failed to survive the legislative gantlet and stiff opposition from the nursing home industry. Instead, legislators adopted several modest provisions that delay reform and, in some cases, actually weaken senior protections, elder advocates said. These provisions were included in the Legislature’s budget bill, which Dayton has pledged to veto.
“This was a train wreck,” said Kristine Sundberg, president of Elder Voice Family Advocates, a coalition of relatives of abuse victims.
“The measures [in the budget bill] are so weak and watered down — that they may actually have moved the state backwards.”
Sen. Karin Housley, chairwoman of the Senate Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee, sounded a more upbeat tone, saying those provisions contained more than 70 pages of new consumer protections.
These include new fines against facilities that violate seniors’ rights, as well as safeguards against providers that retaliate against residents who attempt to assert their rights.
The budget bill also has new money to help the Minnesota Department of Health expedite its processing of elder abuse complaints, among other provisions.
“I know it’s not everything that they want,” said Housley, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Sen. Tina Smith. “But when you take the Dayton administration doing zero for eight years, this comes a long way toward cleaning up the mess.”
Yet elder care advocates say the provisions in the budget bill leave the current regulatory system largely intact and fall well short of the promises of far-reaching reforms made by lawmakers at the start of the session.
The push for reform was fueled by a scathing, 122-page report issued by the Office of the Legislative Auditor, which found deep and chronic failures in the way the state investigates allegations of abuse and communicates with the public.
In addition, a Star Tribune series last November documented that hundreds of serious crimes — including beatings, sexual assaults and thefts — were going uninvestigated each year.
When the state did investigate, the cases could drag on for months or even years, frustrating families and undermining criminal prosecutions, the Star Tribune found.
At emotional Senate hearings, dozens of elder abuse victims and their relatives recounted horrific incidents of abuse and neglect. Some brought graphic photos of injuries and untreated wounds, while others described being kept in the dark for months by state investigators and care facilities after reporting assaults. Still others described being verbally abused and threatened with retaliation by facility staff when they complained.
Yet in the end, elder abuse legislation introduced by Housley and others never made it to the floor for a vote, and the specific proposals became mired in political maneuvering.
The budget bill eventually contained some anti-retaliation provisions and protections against deceptive marketing.
Yet it lacked several broader provisions, including greater transparency of abuse reports and investigations, and a clear path for licensure for the state’s roughly 1,200 assisted-living facilities, which are not licensed by the state and operate under less scrutiny than nursing homes.
Advocates argued that the budget bill actually weakened consumer protections in one key area: the use of electronic monitoring. The bill would require that families obtain consent from a vulnerable adult before placing a camera in room; and that such consent be verified in the presence of a facility employee.
These requirements would have created new barriers to families monitoring the care and safety of their loved ones, advocates said.
“We said from the beginning that we didn’t want half measures, and we ended up with no measures,” said Mary Jo George, associate state director of advocacy at Minnesota AARP. “The provisions [in the budget bill] do not provide meaningful and critical protections to address the horrific and widespread abuse we’ve seen across this state.”
Even so, families of victims made it clear that they would continue pressing for reform, even if that means returning to the State Capitol next spring.
On Sunday afternoon, as House members entered the chambers, members of Elder Voice Family Advocates handed out dozens of orange roses to legislators who supported stronger protections for seniors.
The group plans to launch a series of town hall meetings this summer to call attention to the elder abuse problem, and to expand the group’s base of support.
“Our members are dismayed and angered that we have legislators who are playing political chess with people’s lives,” Sundberg said. “But this issue is too important to feel defeated. We will convert that anger into action.”