Front page images of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s series, ‘Unprotected: broken promises in Georgia’s senior care industry.’
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

EDITORIAL: Gold Dome can lead in making senior care better

Dear members of the Georgia legislature:

Today, you gather under the Gold Dome to begin another important legislative session.

That’s why we’re taking an extraordinary step and using today’s front page to urge you to repair the broken system that should protect vulnerable residents of the state’s assisted living and large personal care homes.

You have an opportunity to make this reform the centerpiece of your leadership this year.

Because lives are at stake, this issue should rank at least as high as the state Constitution’s requirement to pass a balanced budget.

It is that important.

MORE COMMENTARY ON SENIOR CARE

» EDITOR KEVIN RILEY: Time to act on protecting seniors

» OPINION: Some specific steps to make senior facilities safer

» OPINION: A path toward fixing Georgia’s assisted living system

» OPINION: My family’s assisted living experience

The preamble of our state’s Constitution emphasizes the need to “promote the interest and happiness of the citizen and of the family” in Georgia. The state Bill of Rights that quickly follows reads, “Protection to person and property is the paramount duty of government and shall be impartial and complete.”

That last word “complete” is important because the current apparatus for overseeing Georgia’s assisted living and large personal care homes cannot be described using that word. Even “incomplete” is too charitable a descriptor for what’s now in place.

“Broken” is a more-apt term, given the human toll that failures in senior care have exacted on some of our state’s most vulnerable.

Too many times, those flaws have led to human harm. Georgia’s elders should not have to die or suffer terribly in ways that appear related to neglect or abuse.

These are people such as World War II veteran Larry McDonough, who was found doubled-over by a family caregiver in heavy winter clothing on a sun deck outside a St. Simons Island facility on a day when temperatures hovered around 100 degrees.

Unresponsive after apparently being left outdoors for several hours McDonough, 97, was examined by doctors and released. He died four days later. Family members said he was never the same after what happened.

Georgia can do better.

As leaders elected to conduct the people’s business in Georgia, it is within that high calling to fix this problem and decisively lift this state to a better, safer place.

In past years, you have accomplished part of this work.

For instance, you passed legislation that helped create the assisted living option that exists today. This industry provides Georgians a middle ground between levels of service offered by personal care homes and skilled-care nursing homes.

Maintaining that kind of focus on enabling providers to offer efficient, effective services to those in need is important. With our aging population, we have no other prudent course to travel if we wish to help keep Georgians in safe environments.

It’s hard to imagine a family that’s not been visited in some manner by the need to arrange care – often quickly – for loved ones who’re no longer able to live independently. These decisions are painful and trying under the best of circumstances.

And, while Georgians proudly count ourselves as an independent lot, we believe individuals – and the sum of the communities they comprise – rely on our state government to provide essential basics of transparent information that can help people make the best choices.

State government is also the only entity that can act to provide appropriate oversight of assisted living and personal care homes here.

That vital service, done well, can safeguard people – and protect lives.

» SEARCHABLE DATABASE: Details on every facility studied by the AJC

» MORE: The ‘Unprotected’ investigative series

We acknowledge that many of these facilities work hard to provide good and adequate care. The problem is that some don’t – and people have suffered harm or death as a result.

The AJC’s “Unprotected” investigation shows what can happen when this function is inadequately handled.

Our work identified 600 allegations involving neglect and 90 allegations of abuse in assisted living and personal care facilities across the state, from 2015 through 2018. Those statistics encompass 20 deaths and more than 100 injuries.

The state’s record keeping is so incomplete that the actual number of residents who have been neglected or abused is almost certainly much greater.

It’s anyone’s guess as to how high.

That’s because the Georgia Department of Community Health has said that its files don’t facilitate assessing data, such as the number of deaths or injuries in assisted living and large personal care homes. Ditto for the number of people with dementia who wander away from facilities. And so on.

We believe you’ll agree that if vital information isn’t assembled in a logical form in a common place, it cannot be assessed, acted upon or improved. If the right information isn’t readily available, Georgians cannot make the best decisions when it comes to caring for themselves or their loved ones.

That situation must change.

It’s vital that DCH’s website provide that information. Until late last week, the entire “Map2Care” website had been down for a full month, starting in early December. The retooled site, which went live last week, is better but it’s still falling short.

And, even with this upgrade, there’s much more to do across the system.

To make that happen, we urge you to quickly begin the legislative work of devising comprehensive fixes for these and other problems and shortcomings found as a result of the AJC’s “Unprotected” work.

Realistically, solutions will not be easy. But repairing the flaws and providing the necessary resources and guidance to DCH and any other agencies to step up their game is sorely needed in this state.

In fact, many of the states that Georgia competes with for jobs and investment and retirees are already well ahead of us in enacting commonsense, sound policies and oversight that help keep their residents safer.

As we’ve done on other fields of endeavor, we believe Georgia can stack up well here, too. All it takes is the will to commit to change.

Let’s begin the work to do that.

-- The Editorial Board

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