Opinion: In praise of senior care progress

State Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta) is congratulated by Rep. Calvin Smyre, (D-Columbus), after the passage of a bill on reform of senior care in Georgia. Smyre spoke in support of the bill. The Georgia house passed HB 987, sponsored by Cooper, to provide additional measures for the protection of elderly persons and better regulate assisted living facilities and large personal care homes. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
State Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta) is congratulated by Rep. Calvin Smyre, (D-Columbus), after the passage of a bill on reform of senior care in Georgia. Smyre spoke in support of the bill. The Georgia house passed HB 987, sponsored by Cooper, to provide additional measures for the protection of elderly persons and better regulate assisted living facilities and large personal care homes. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

The near-unanimous passage of a senior care bill by the Georgia House marks a big step. Now, it’s up to the Senate to quickly move on legislation to safeguard the elderly.

Given the necessity of better safeguarding Georgia’s vulnerable seniors, it’s very encouraging that the Georgia Legislature seems to be striding deliberately toward passing legislation targeting our shortcomings in oversight of senior care.

We urge lawmakers to maintain their resolve to achieve comprehensive solutions this year.

The Georgia House of Representatives approved one week ago a bill that looks to be a sturdy start toward correcting many of the disturbing findings reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in our “Unprotected” investigative series.

By all indications, the General Assembly has taken to heart the AJC’s report and is moving along proposed laws to address these problems.

On Feb. 28, House Bill 987 passed the Georgia House by a vote of 160-1. That is a pleasantly stunning outcome in these partisan times of party-line divides, we believe. And it speaks to both lawmakers’ common sense and common decency in recognizing that this is a problem that transcends political boundaries. The incidents of abuse and neglect in some Georgia assisted living and large personal care homes as brought to light by the AJC’s ongoing reporting demands strong remedies.

We’re grateful that this state’s elected leaders chose to side with our shared humanity in their moves intended to better protect Georgians. This reflects well on the high calling of their offices.

It’s still prudent to note that, the political process being what it is, celebrations are still premature. So far, three pieces of legislation around senior care issues are active in the Legislative.

Two other bills that have yet to pass either chamber are focused on identifying abuse and neglect when it does happen. That’s a real concern, given the AJC found suspected incidents often go undetected and unreported. Each bill deserves due consideration and action ahead of Crossover Day, we believe.

House Bill 849 would let families of facility residents install video surveillance at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. That would let loved ones remotely monitor what’s going on in resident rooms when visitors are not around. The bill has stalled after the care industry raised concerns about privacy and cybersecurity.

We believe the concept has merit and that a solution can be found that both safeguards computer networks and lets families keep an eye on what’s happening with their loved ones.

House bill 955 bolsters mandatory reporting requirements in instances where elder abuse, neglect or exploitation is suspected. It would also strengthen requirements for facility staff or law enforcement to alert local coroners or medical examiners of deaths in long-term care facilities that could be related to neglect.

The points raised in HB 955 would seem to provide additional tools to help safeguard vulnerable people and thus make the bill worthy of favorable consideration, we believe.

The comprehensive HB 987 now heads across the Gold Dome to the Georgia Senate. Support for the measure seems substantial, but there is always risk of unforeseen political snags or undue revisions that could drastically change, or dilute, the intent of the measure.

We urge Georgia’s senators to not let that happen. The bill now in their chamber should not be significantly altered nor should its provisions be watered down. There’s always some risk of that in a Legislature that usually sides heavily with business interests. As we’ve said here many times, safeguarding the private sector is important, given its cornerstone place in our nation’s economy. We also believe it is lawmakers’ job to balance businesses’ interests with those of broader society and everyday Georgians. In this instance, the safety of Georgia’s seniors and their hard-working families must not be overlooked or undervalued.

Appropriately weighing both these broad interests and ending up with an evenhanded result is hard work. And we recognize lawmakers’ efforts so far to try to do the right things in the right way. Please keep going.

The beauty of HB 987 is that it is the result of a compromise effort. That point shouldn’t be overlooked in an age of winner-take-all national politics where one side often seeks to stomp the other’s concerns into oblivion.

The Georgia legislation was written with input from both consumer advocates and the senior care industry. The legislation that emerged appears to reflect well on the good intentions and political skill of key backers, especially Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, and Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta. Cooper is a registered nurse and LaHood’s family is a provider of senior care.

Cooper explained this process in remarks minutes before the House vote. “This is a carefully crafted bill. I’ve worked with seniors, I’ve worked with people that represent each of the areas that are reflected in this bill and it is a very carefully worked out compromise, which means that I’m not happy with everything reflected in this bill, and the groups are not totally happy. And as they say, usually that means you have a good bill, and I believe we do.”

We believe you do too, Rep. Cooper and other supporters. And we urge you and your legislative colleagues to see this bill – substantially unchanged – on through to final passage and delivery to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature into law.

And, on behalf of Georgians, many thanks for your work thus far.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

OUR REPORTING

Thousands of Georgia families rely on private-pay assisted living communities and large personal care homes. To examine the quality of care they receive, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters spent more than a year compiling and analyzing thousands of government documents and databases and conducting dozens of interviews. The investigation of Georgia’s system revealed hundreds of cases of neglect and abuse, nearly two dozen deaths and dangerous gaps that leave vulnerable seniors unprotected. The legislation proposed by Rep.Sharon Cooper and adopted by the Georgia House addresses many of the problems highlighted by the AJC’s reporting. Read the AJC series online at ajc.com/unprotected

MORE DETAILS

Five key proposals for improving safety and oversight of Georgia’s assisted living and large personal care homes:

1. More staff would be required in memory care centers at all hours; minimum staffing requirements at night would increase outside of memory care.

2. Assisted living communities would have to have a registered nurse or licensed practical nurse on site for a set number of hours each week, based on the number of residents.

3. Facilities would be required to disclose financial information and notify the state and residents when they face bankruptcy or ownership change.

4. Administrators would have to pass a test and be licensed.

5. Fines for neglect and abuse would increase. The minimum fine for death or serious injury linked to poor care would be $5,000.