‘So many problems’: AJC town hall sparks dialogue on Georgia’s elder care

Panelists, audience seek answers to questions raised by AJC’s ‘Unprotected’ investigation into long term care industry.

A panel of experts and reporters sought answers Thursday to troubling questions raised in AJC's investigation into the long term care industry in Georgia at a town hall hosted by Georgia Public Broadcasting.

“There are just so many problems all around,” state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, told the audience of 250 people, many of whom had loved ones living in assisted living communities and personal care homes.

In articles published over the past two months, the AJC's investigation into theses facilities found 600 cases of neglect, 90 cases of abuse, assaults, thefts, residents left injured on the floor and 20 deaths that were related to poor care.

The series generated considerable response from readers, who contacted the AJC with their own stories. “I felt like somebody was shining a light on a problem,” Karen Goode told the newspaper.

Goode’s mother, who had Alzheimer’s, died in August, 12 days after a serious fall at a facility in North Fulton. Other readers wrote to share similar stories.

The feedback from readers encouraged the AJC to arrange Thursday's town hall meeting for the public and for those in the elder care industry. A broadcast of the town hall will air statewide on GPB on Nov. 14 at 7 p.m.

WATCH THE AJC/GPB ‘UNPROTECTED’ TOWN HALL BELOW:

Among those in the audience was Margie Osheroff of John’s Creek, who has worked in the state’s ombudsmen system, which is charged with reporting on the state’s assisted living communities. She attended Thursday’s meeting hoping to share her view that supervision from the state is lacking, and that the ombudsmen program is underfunded. “I’m pissed off,” she said.

Moderator Bill Nigut, host of GPB’s “Political Rewind,” called on another audience member, Ross Perloe, whose mother was living at Somerby, in Sandy Springs, a high-end assisted living facility which allowed an infestation of ants in her room.

“It even happened to you?” said Nigut.

“It did,” said Perloe. “We were one of the families that hired a private aid, our private aid reported a problem, and a week later she asked if the situation had gotten take care of. And it hadn’t. We are in the industry. I sell long-term care insurance. I was there an average of two or three times a day. And it happened.”

A week after 92-year-old Betty Perloe was repeatedly bitten by ants in her bed, she died.

Jason Marbutt, a senior assistant district attorney in Cobb County, prosecuted the death of a 91-year-old man at a facility in Cobb and said too few cases of neglect are reported to authorities.

“These are the cases that keep me up at night,” he said. “You can only prosecute cases you know about.”

» REACTION: AJC’s ‘Unprotected’ spurs outrage, calls for change in senior care

» CONSUMER GUIDE: Resources for finding and evaluating a senior care facility

Nigut asked Cooper about the most significant problems facing assisted living facilities. One, she said, was lack of staffing. The other was the fact that many of these facilities take patients who really belong in nursing homes, prompting nods of agreement from many in the audience.

The AJC found the same problems. Breakdowns in care were often rooted in facility staffing shortages, poor training or efforts to cut corners, the AJC determined.

Reporters Brad Schrade and Carrie Teegardin spoke about gathering information for the story, and the difficulty of dealing with the state’s haphazard reporting system.

“The state of Georgia would not talk to us,” Teegardin said. “Their unwillingness to talk to us about their process and even share their public information was very disturbing.”

A system called GaMa2Care is supposed to help consumers find out information about the facilities, but it’s information is frequently outdated, she said.

Drawing a comparison with health reports at restaurants, Teegardin said “imagine if they waited nine months or a year before they posted the report that the place had actually failed. It’s even impossible for most consumers to even find this website. That’s why The Atlanta Journal-Constitution created a website where people could find this information.”

Those reports are available in a searchable database at ajc.com/unprotected. The facility search includes information about assisted living communities and large personal care homes in Georgia, and a consumer guide from our investigative journalists.

A lack of accountability, and a lack of punishment also aggravates the problem, panelists said.

A subscriber asked a simple question online: How do we hold the assisted living homes accountable?

Schrade told the audience, “we found cases where people died and the state fine was $601. That was surprising to us, when we first discovered it. There’s just not a big penalty for these kind of violations.”

Cooper told the audience the state’s $601 fine for serious violations against homes was woefully inadequate and that they should be “substantially more.” Homes should also be held accountable for failing to report cases of neglect and abuse, she said, urging Georgians to contact their legislators to demand reforms to the system.

The AJC’s “Unprotected” investigative series continues through the end of this year.


OUR COVERAGE

Read the AJC's yearlong investigation into Georgia's senior care industry at ajc.com/unprotected and look for more stories about senior care issues in the months ahead.

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