Opinion: Keep pushing for seniorcare reforms

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution hosted a community conversation about the AJC’s “Unprotected” reporting investigation at Georgia Public Broadcasting last October. Panelists consisted of (right to left) Bill Nigut, host and executive producer of Political Rewind for Georgia Public Broadcasting; Carrie Teegardin, AJC investigative reporter; Brad Schrade, AJC investigative reporter; State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta; Jason Marbutt, Cobb County Senior assistant district attorney; Melanie McNeil, Georgia Long-term Care Ombudsman; and Ginny Helms, President-CEO of LeadingAge Georgia. (Tyson Horne/Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution hosted a community conversation about the AJC’s “Unprotected” reporting investigation at Georgia Public Broadcasting last October. Panelists consisted of (right to left) Bill Nigut, host and executive producer of Political Rewind for Georgia Public Broadcasting; Carrie Teegardin, AJC investigative reporter; Brad Schrade, AJC investigative reporter; State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta; Jason Marbutt, Cobb County Senior assistant district attorney; Melanie McNeil, Georgia Long-term Care Ombudsman; and Ginny Helms, President-CEO of LeadingAge Georgia. (Tyson Horne/Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Balancing the state budget is important. Georgia’s Constitution demands that.

Safeguarding the lives of at-risk senior citizens is equally important.

For that reason, we’re again urging the Georgia General Assembly to focus on enacting comprehensive improvements to the state’s oversight of senior facilities, even during a legislative session seemingly studded with more distractions than usual.

As we’ve written before, the human toll of pain, suffering and even death that points toward suspected neglect or outright abuse at too many assisted living and large personal care homes demands change. And that change must come this year – in this legislative session.

It’s no exaggeration to say that improving the oversight of senior care facilities potentially affects the lives of all Georgians – now, or at some future date. An aging population guarantees that.

It’s also worth reiterating some key of the points uncovered by our “Unprotected” series of investigative reports that began last fall.

In an editorial Dec. 29, We summarized the situation this way: “Our reporters analyzed Georgia Department of Community Health inspection reports from 2015 through 2018 for every assisted living community and every personal care home with 25 or more beds.

“They examined the state’s records of fines and other enforcement actions against these facilities. They pored over hundreds of other records, including regulatory appeal documents and applications for new care facilities. They reviewed lawsuits and criminal case files and sat in courtrooms during legal proceedings. AJC journalists reviewed laws governing senior care homes in all 50 states.

“Our team spent hour upon hour interviewing family members, home operators, trade groups and policy experts.

“This work identified 600 allegations involving neglect and 90 allegations of abuse in assisted living and large personal care facilities across the state. The numbers include 20 deaths and more than 100 injuries in instances where facilities appear to have failed to provide adequate care.

“And, given incompleteness or other inadequacies of records in Georgia, it’s very likely that the number of those harmed is even higher.”

Concerned legislators have promised that reform legislation is in the works, and we hope that’s the case. We also hope that bills promising robust changes are filed soon. The earlier that happens, the more time the General Assembly will have to carefully weigh and debate revisions that most agree are needed.

History shows that adequate time is required to vet, haggle over – and pass – good legislation. That’s the case even in years without distractions such as the current high-wire drama of reconciling the state budget’s inflows and outflows. Somewhat-shaky tax receipts and worries about a possible future recession somewhere on the horizon have lawmakers nervously hashing out substantial budget cuts.

Last week, legislative leaders moved to take a week-and-a-half break from normal floor sessions to work out details of the budget.

Achieving a budget deal in a tough year of conflicting priorities and iffy tax revenue is demanding work, we agree.

In the spirit of priorities, we urge lawmakers to use the session break to also ensure that the cost of fully funding senior care improvements is adequately considered and fully present in the finished budget bills.

Finding any needed new dollars will be a challenge, but we believe our legislators can get that done and live up to the high calling of their office.

Georgia’s citizens can play a role in ensuring this happens.

They should reach out to lawmakers and other state officials to let them know about the importance of fixing these problems.

They should share their own stories of problems encountered at troubled assisted living and personal care homes.

Most importantly, they should assure budget-conscious lawmakers that any new resources allocated to oversight measures are not a fiscal extravagance. Rather, managed efficiently, it will be money well-spent – a prudent investment that can help save lives and reduce suffering among a vulnerable segment of our population.

As they encourage legislators, citizens should make it clear, too, that they expect senior care reforms to be passed into law and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp this year.

Time lost can, at worst, lead to lives lost or harmed.

Lawmakers owe it to the great legislative body they comprise, and to the people they serve, to make these needed changes happen. We’ll point out again here a relevant clause found in Georgia’s Bill of Rights. It presses the need to “promote the interest and happiness of the citizen and of the family in Georgia,” and elaborates that “protection to person and property is the paramount duty of government and shall be impartial and complete.”

There is nothing wishy-washy or partisan in those wise words. Indeed, they clearly call Georgia and its leaders to a high ground of service to all humanity in this state.

And all of us, really, have a role in helping make that happen.

Anyone reading the AJC’s “Unprotected” installments and the disturbing tales of suffering can readily and quickly see just how far we are from the protective ideals enshrined in Georgia law.

In our Dec. 29 editorial, we wrote: “The main ‘Unprotected’ story today sums up things this way: ‘Without a strong system in Georgia to check for compliance and hold operators accountable, Georgia’s seniors remain unprotected from risks that threaten their comfort, dignity and safety.’ “

Georgia can do better. It must do better. Our vulnerable elderly and disabled people deserve far better.

This year.

The Editorial Board.