Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said in a written statement Thursday that improved transparency will result from a rule proposed by the state agency responsible for oversight of assisted living and personal care homes.
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Opinion: Some specific steps to make senior facilities safer

No one wins if the assisted living industry in Georgia loses the public’s trust. And yet that’s a real possibility without additional regulations and safeguards to protect seniors, many of whom pay a hefty price to be in an assisted living facility or personal care home.

Georgia has the 11th fastest-growing 60-plus population, the 10th fastest-growing 85-plus population, and a booming assisted living industry. The National Center for Assisted Living estimates that the state’s assisted living industry has a $1.5 billion economic impact on the economy and provides more than 16,000 jobs.

We have been contacted by seniors and their families in Georgia who are afraid to move into an assisted living community given what they have read in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The newspaper’s investigation of 690 allegations of neglect or abuse demonstrates that the status quo cannot stand unchallenged. While these incidents occurred at only a fraction of our state’s 1,600-plus assisted living and personal care homes, they illustrate the need to make changes now.

There are many stakeholders involved: residents and their families, assisted living providers, their owners and employees, provider industry organizations, ancillary businesses, state regulator agencies and ombudsmen, local law enforcement, and state policymakers.

Within this large stakeholder community, we at the Georgia Council on Aging believe there is room for consensus: that older adults should have access to safe assisted living and personal care home facilities. To make good choices, consumers and their families need solid information about their options. The source of information about the safety of these facilities is the state, which has the responsibility for licensing them.

Clearly changes are needed in Georgia’s oversight of these facilities. For over two years we have pushed for updates to the laws and regulations governing assisted living communities and personal care homes. We have met many times with legislators and state regulators, but the detailed research and case studies documented by the AJC prove the depth and breadth of the problems.

We have recommended the following changes to Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, and House Speaker David Ralston:

  1. Increase fines for rules violations;
  2. Properly staff the regulating agency, the division of Healthcare Facility Regulation, and
  3. Upgrade its information system in order to make timely inspections and reports;
  4. Insist on transparency for consumers about violations and complaints;
  5. Increase staffing ratios at facilities. We also have recommended to the House Study Committee on Innovative Financial Options for Senior Living that Georgia change its assisted living licensing categories to allow for multiple levels of care, each with its own rules and regulations.

According to the AJC investigation, other Southeastern states are moving forward to change laws and regulations about violation reporting, nursing staff requirements, extended training requirements for dementia care units, and higher qualification standards for administrator certification. We would do well to review these models.

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

» MORE: The ‘Unprotected’ investigative series

In the last decade, Georgia has taken decisive steps to combat elder abuse: criminalizing offenses, expanding those who are mandated to report problems, protecting witness testimony, training law enforcement to understand and use new laws, adding staff to the Adult Protective Services agency, and enabling collaboration in prosecuting abusers.

In that spirit, we urge state policymakers to continue the fight against elder abuse and to take action to protect assisted living residents through the legislative process.

We hope to see bold legislative proposals supported by leadership when the state legislative session starts on Monday. We encourage all stakeholders to embrace this effort. Our older adults will feel a mantle of protection and see that we care, and our assisted living industry will demonstrate its reliability.

Vicki Vaughn Johnson is chair of the board of the Georgia Council on Aging and lives in Cumming.

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