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Opinion: A strong step to safeguard Ga. seniors

Thursday was an encouraging day for Georgia “relating to health,” as a proposed new law put it.

The new bill puts on paper the beginning of what looks to be a solid and substantial step toward improving safety, and preventing instances of abuse and neglect, in Georgia’s senior care facilities.

Now it’s up to lawmakers and the legislative process to see this necessary cause through to completion, meaning a good, thorough law that Gov. Brian Kemp signs into existence this spring.

The backers of the legislation, especially Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta who’s been a leader in the push for change, and the Georgia General Assembly in general, are to be commended for hearing the voices of the many vulnerable Georgians who’ve relayed disturbing stories about substandard care at too many assisted living, large personal care or nursing homes in the state. It’s encouraging as well that State Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta, whose family operates senior care homes, has worked closely with Cooper in crafting the legislation. That combination of industry and healthcare experience – Cooper is an RN — applied toward a necessary service of government to help safeguard human lives should bode well, we hope, for the bill’s serious consideration and passage into law – this year.

The proposal is intended to address many of the serious failings that were brought into public view as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s journalists reported on problems at assisted living and large personal care homes. “Unprotected,” the AJC’s ongoing series of investigative reports that resulted from our work, revealed disturbing problems that, from all appearances, were enabled by inadequate oversight of senior care operations here.

MORE COMMENTARY ON SENIOR CARE

» OUR FRONT-PAGE EDITORIAL: Gold Dome can lead in making senior care better

» 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 first lines of the new legislation relate its broad purpose in refreshingly plain language: “to provide additional measures for the protection of elderly persons.” The intro then gives quick summaries of how the proposed law would achieve and enforce this necessity of a decent, humane society. The bill would empower specific tools for improving oversight and enforcement of Georgia senior care operations. Among them are:

• Maximum fines for violations would be substantially increased. 

• Staff-to-resident ratios are strengthened. 

• Training requirements are reinforced and detailed for both staff and administrators. 

• Facility operators would have to verify financial stability. 

• Licensing standards for facilities and administrations are also addressed.

All told, the proposal seems to address many of the major shortcomings that “Unprotected” brought before the public.

And the 16 pages of the new bill is not the only legislation around senior care introduced this year at the Gold Dome. A bill sponsored by State Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, is intended to help ensure that local coroners or medical examiners are alerted to unexpected deaths at senior care homes.

The AJC’s work found that law enforcement was often not made aware of questionable deaths or injuries occurring at senior care facilities around the state.

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

» MORE: The ‘Unprotected’ investigative series

We are pleased that the state Legislature seems to have absorbed the disturbing findings from “Unprotected” and taken solid initial action as a result. At the end of December, an AJC editorial summarized this work: “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.”

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

We’ve editorialized here time and again that Georgia’s present way of overseeing senior care was inadequate and had to change – and that Georgians should press lawmakers to improve this situation.

We’re pleased that our elected officials have acknowledged the voices representing vulnerable Georgians.

Gov. Brian Kemp put it well last week in saying that “Georgia is a state that values life, and that means every senior citizen should be safe to age gracefully in their local community.”

Rep. Cooper also remarked in introducing her legislation that “the patient is always my priority.”

Passing legislation in 2020 that solidly enhances the resources and oversight tools needed to help ensure that facility operators truly provide adequate, patient-centered care for Georgia’s elders will be a large step toward achieving these expressed ideals.

Lawmakers should not falter in making that happen, and Georgians should not hesitate to voice their support of these needed legislative reforms.

- The Editorial Board.

STATEWIDE INVESTIGATION 

The AJC has been digging into Georgia’s troubled senior care industry and bringing you our findings since September. More results of our exclusive investigation will be published during the coming months.

Stay up to date with our ongoing investigation at ajc.com/unprotected

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