Frank W. Berry (center), Commissioner of Georgia Department of Community Health, leaves after a community health board meeting in August in Atlanta.
Photo: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com
Photo: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

DCH chief says agency will improve oversight of senior care

Georgia Department of Community Health Commissioner Frank W. Berry on Thursday thanked the AJC for exposing problems in the state’s senior care industry and said he planned to work with elected officials “to make sure we strengthen the system.”

Berry’s comments, made at a public DCH board meeting, represent an about-face by the commissioner, whose agency has refused for months to meet with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution or acknowledge any serious shortcomings in his agency’s oversight of the care facilities that are the subject of the AJC’s ongoing investigative series.

The AJC series identified more than 600 cases involving neglect and 90 of abuse across a system of about 400 private-pay assisted living communities and large personal care homes, many of which project an upscale country-club image and charge between $3,000 and $8,000 a month.

The newspaper also found that consumers are often kept in the dark about problems at the homes because of delays and gaps in DCH’s system of oversight. Even prosecutors say they aren’t being notified of cases that deserve their review.

To address the lack of transparency, the AJC created a consumer website to provide Georgians with detailed information about every assisted living community and large personal care home in the state.

After the first installments of the series were published in September, the AJC published a story on Sunday in which Gov. Brian Kemp’s office, members of the Georgia General Assembly and advocates for seniors said Georgia needed to address the problems. An industry trade group also acknowledged changes may be needed, saying it had “great intolerance for wrong-doing or substandard care.”

Contacted last week, DCH again declined to be interviewed and didn’t comment about the AJC’s report.

But on Thursday, Berry recognized the AJC’s series in front of his board members and said the agency is working with the governor’s office to address the issues. He said it is his agency’s “number 1 priority” to make sure that people under the care of facilities that are licensed by DCH are receiving great service.

DCH board members did not address Berry’s comments during the public meeting.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan earlier this week joined the elected officials calling for Georgia to address the issues raised by the AJC, saying the series affected him on a personal level. His grandmother recently moved into a senior care home.

“As someone who has recently dealt with placing a family member in an assisted living facility, these reports are concerning,” Duncan said. “Georgia expects better. I look forward to working with all stakeholders this upcoming session to find fact-based solutions that better serve and protect some of Georgia’s most vulnerable citizens.”

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