Opinion: Better protecting Ga.’s vulnerable seniors

A planned expansion at this senior facility came to a standstill after the project ran into financial problems. The owners filed for bankruptcy and hope to resume construction once a federal court approves their bankruptcy plan.

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A planned expansion at this senior facility came to a standstill after the project ran into financial problems. The owners filed for bankruptcy and hope to resume construction once a federal court approves their bankruptcy plan.

Where capitalism and care can clash. That could be the subtitle of the latest report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s ongoing investigation “Unprotected: Broken promises in Georgia’s senior care industry.”

The extensive findings reported today point out problems of financial disruption that are not uncommon in the senior care industry, or any other line of business, really. In this instance, though, too often strained budgets or bankruptcies led to critical shortcomings of care that resulted in human suffering among Georgia’s vulnerable population of seniors.

Seen broadly, today’s report once more points out substantial shortcomings in how Georgia regulates – or more pointedly, dutifully fails to regulate – assisted-living and large personal care home operations.

Far too frequently, Georgia’s fragile elderly citizens and their families have paid awful prices for this type of fiscal or regulatory negligence.

As we’ve written here before, that must change. Georgia must do better by this vulnerable population and Georgians must demand that substantial change comes sooner, and not somewhere toward a distant tomorrow.

That change should certainly include better, more-consistent monitoring of the physical process of care. Today’s AJC report also highlights the need for Georgia to require assisted living and personal care home operators to conclusively show that they have the financial wherewithal to adequately and safely operate.

And all that must come to pass in this state where “regulation” is, in essence, very nearly a dirty word and “business-friendly” is perhaps the phrase used most-often by Gold Dome lawmakers. As it stands now, these two concepts are seen by many as enemies that cannot, by any stretch of imagination, peacefully – or profitably – co-exist.

That is flawed logic by our reasoning. At its extreme, it even borders on illogic, in our opinion. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Yes, we live in a capitalist system and economy. And Georgia’s embraced all that as, or more, zealously as any other state. In many instances, this state’s economy has, broadly, benefited. With the capital city that is us leading the way, Georgia’s been a beacon for commerce and the investment and the jobs they draw. Significant prosperity has come to us as a result.

And, in a broader sense, the financial upheavals that have hammered some conglomerates, real-estate trusts and other corporate entities in the senior care business are part of a time-honored, Darwinian system of free markets. Basically, financial markets will correct their imbalances, problems and mistakes over time. Sometimes that process is painful, or devastating even, to some ill-situated companies and investors. Yet, this system is efficient, if sometimes harsh, in a dollars-and-cents way. This process of capitalism has generally served well the world of commerce and its customers.

We’d argue that caring for human beings is different. People can be at undue risk of harm at times when they occupy the troubled space where the need for care they’re paying good money to receive clashes with a struggling home operator making whatever cuts they deem necessary for financial survival, let alone profit.

Georgia’s fragile, often-chronically ill, elderly and their families aren’t as resilient as the abstract commercial concepts that halo the world of high-dollar investment and finance, we’d suggest. Business reorganizations, bankruptcies or litigation over unpaid bills incurred by struggling firms are not the same, we’d argue, as the physical or psychological harm to residents that can – and has — resulted in these worst-case scenarios.

For that reason, Georgia must rethink its attitude and apparatus around monitoring the senior-care industry. Many other states do a better, more-comprehensive job, the AJC’s “Unprotected” reporting has found.

Not all of them are liberal-leaning, high-tax states as some politicians might have you believe. Not at all. Rather, at least two dozen states require assisted living and personal care home operators to disclose financial details or notify regulators if they enter bankruptcy or default on loans.

As today’s reporting notes, “Georgia doesn’t have such requirements.” It should.

Conservative Kansas is among the latest states to enact requirements in this vein. A law approved in April requires applicants for licenses to operate assisted living and other senior care homes to provide a projected budget for their first year of operation. The law also sets out a process for appointing a receiver whenever an adult care home is insolvent or has conditions that may be dangerous to residents. News reports indicate the law was approved after Kansas had to take over nearly two dozen fiscally struggling homes.

Among fellow Southern states, Louisiana, Tennessee, Virginia, Florida and West Virginia already have some manner of financial disclosure requirements. Florida requires that bankruptcies of home licensees must be posted on a regulatory agency’s consumer website, for example.

These sorts of requirements and a regulatory environment that gives them adequate teeth do not seem like radical, business-damaging flights of fancy. Rather, they appear to be commonsense, reasonable approaches that can help protect vulnerable people. It doesn’t seem unreasonable, either, that these types of rules could also benefit the financially solid operators of assisted living and personal care homes that work hard to provide compassionate, adequate care to residents who’ve entrusted their well-being to them.

We can and must improve. Georgia needs to learn quickly from those states that are closer to where we need to be and move to rapidly catch up.

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