Georgia senior care bill clears key test

House Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, presents her senior care bill and answers questions during a committee meeting Tuesday. / Special

House Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, presents her senior care bill and answers questions during a committee meeting Tuesday. / Special

A plan to improve safety and oversight in Georgia’s assisted living facilities and personal care homes received a key stamp of approval Tuesday when a state legislative committee adopted the proposal.

The unanimous vote in the state’s House Health and Human Services Committee signaled that the plan to increase penalties for neglect and abuse as well as require more safeguards for those with dementia has broad support among lawmakers, advocates and leaders in the industry.

The proposal, which focuses on large facilities, comes as advocates and families across Georgia have raised concerns about safety and state oversight in the rapidly expanding senior care industry. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, would increase staffing and training requirements for facilities that operate memory care units.

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

» MORE: The 'Unprotected' investigative series

House Bill 987 also would require administrators who run assisted living and large personal care homes to receive special training and licenses, similar to the requirements placed on nursing home administrators.

"I'm elated," Cooper said after the vote. "The committee had good questions. It passed unanimously. I think we have a good bill and on to the Rules Committee and the floor and then the Senate."

The bill follows a series last fall in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that exposed hundreds of cases of neglect and abuse in assisted living and large personal care homes across Georgia. The AJC series, "Unprotected," revealed how a gold rush mentality to profit from aging seniors led to a building boom in Georgia, creating competitive pressures that caused some to struggle financially and care to suffer.

The proposal also calls for facilities to disclose financial problems and ownership changes that could impact care. Currently, the state’s regulator, the Department of Community Health, does not track financial stability, leaving consumers in the dark. As part of getting a state license, homes would also have to demonstrate they are financially viable.

HB 987, which still needs approval by the full House before it goes to the Senate, would require facilities with memory care units to get certified and employ staff who are are trained to care for people with dementia. The proposal also recognizes the complexities of caring for these residents and requires more around-the-clock staff on these special units.

» RELATED: Advocates urge lawmakers to fund reform of senior care system

» MORE: As state struggles to protect seniors, agency mum on more inspectors

“We’re thrilled that the state has recognized that we need to set apart memory care and require higher standards of care and training for that population,” said MaryLea Boatwright Quinn, the director of government affairs for the Georgia chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Cooper’s bill grows out of the reality that residents of assisted living communities are often frail and have complex needs. The average age is well over 80, and many have memory issues. Accordingly, the plan would require that assisted living and memory care centers have nurses on staff, something state rules currently do not require.

Cooper’s bill was lauded by both senior advocates and representatives of the care industry as a necessary step to protect Georgia’s elderly.

“Everyone wins when the consumers are protected and the assisted living industry is vibrant in Georgia,” said Vicki Vaughn Johnson, the chairwoman of the Georgia Council on Aging.

Beth Cayce of the Georgia Senior Living Association said she was speaking in support of the bill on behalf of senior care communities from across the state who have a track record of positive outcomes.

“We applaud the standards that you are bringing for us,” she told the committee. “We want to raise the bar of accountability across the board for all members.”

House Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, along with Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta, right, present their senior care bill and answer questions during the committee’s meeting Tuesday. / Special

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Cooper said she was unaware of many of the problems until the AJC’s series brought them to light. The series found lax state oversight and weak fines when facilities abuse and neglect residents. The proposal would significantly increase fines, moving the maximum daily fine from $1,000 to $2,000 for serious violations. In the case of deaths and serious injuries, facilities would face a mandatory fine of $5,000 if the incidents were linked to poor care.

Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, said he supports the proposal but wants to make sure the Department of Community Health has the staff to enforce the rules. Others on the committee echoed his concern. Petrea said the issue would have to be addressed in the budget process.

“We can pass rules all day long,” Petrea said. “If it’s another rule that doesn’t get surveyed, it’s meaningless.”