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"I'm a nurse," said Cooper, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee. "I believe in prevention. This is a proactive approach."
Cooper drafted the legislation to address many of the problems outlined in an investigative series published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last fall. The series found nearly 700 cases of neglect and abuse documented in these facilities across the state and more than 20 deaths linked to breakdowns in care.
Cooper and Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, mentioned the AJC investigation on the House floor as they urged colleagues to adopt the bill. Smyre said he was particularly touched by a piece in the series that told the story of a 92-year-old great grandmother with dementia who died when she wandered away from a Macon facility in the middle of the night, fell down a steep hill and broke her neck.
He said his grandmother had also wandered from a care facility, but she was found uninjured, and his family was able to move her to a different home.
“We need to continue to create good public policy to oversee the senior care facilities so we can stop such tragedies in the future,” Smyre said. “This is a huge step in the right direction.”
The lone dissenting vote in the House came from Rep. Sharon Beasley-Teague, D-Red Oak. Beasley-Teague did not respond before deadline to a call seeking comment.
The bill, which will go next to the Senate, would require administrators who run assisted living facilities or large personal care homes to receive special training and licenses, similar to the requirements placed on nursing home administrators.
It would also require facilities to get certification for memory care units and employ staff who are more highly trained to care for people with dementia. The proposal also recognizes the complexities of caring for these residents and would require more around-the-clock staff on these special units. The bill also would require assisted living homes and memory care centers to have nurses on staff for a minimum number of hours each week, depending on how many people reside at the home.
The AJC series revealed that state oversight of the senior care homes is weak and that the Georgia oversight agency doesn’t have sufficient staff to conduct annual inspections. It also revealed how a gold rush mentality to profit from aging seniors led to a building boom in Georgia, creating competitive pressures that caused some facilities to struggle financially and care to suffer.
The bill acknowledges this issue with a new requirement for facilities to disclose financial problems and ownership changes that could impact care. As part of getting a state license, homes would also have to demonstrate they are financially viable.
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The bill also would increase fines for deaths or serious injuries linked to poor care. Currently, many of the most serious cases of harm result in a state fine of mo more than $601. Under the bill, the minimum fine would roughly double, and cases where a home is cited in relation to death or serious harm would result in a minimum fine of $5,000.
It's unclear when the Senate will hear the bill, but Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, plans to help push to get it passed. He is Gov. Brian Kemp's Senate floor leader and said he is hopeful the bill will gain support.
“The governor’s office has been working with Chairwoman Cooper on this from the beginning,” Strickland said. “I plan on leading the charge to get it passed.”
Gail Walker, the daughter of the woman whose story Smyre recounted on the House floor, has been following the legislative reform efforts, and she is hopeful change is coming that will help protect seniors in the future. She said she was heartened by the fact that the retelling of her mother’s tragic end in 2015 may have helped effect positive change.
“I know my mother would be very excited that her situation helped somebody else along the way,” Walker said. “It makes what happened to my mother a little bit easier to accept.”