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Lawmakers present proposed reforms for assisted-living facilities

State oversight of assisted-living facilities is poised for a massive overhaul this session, and lawmakers unveiled Thursday two separate but very similar proposals for how to do it.

The crackdown follows an investigative series by The Miami Herald called "Neglected to Death" that detailed many years of abuse in these facilities and lax agency regulation. Senators of the Health Regulation and Children, Families and Elder Affairs committees worked for months on legislation.

"This is really comprehensive, important landmark legislation," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said during discussion of the Health Regulation bill, PCB 7174. She introduced an amendment that revived a portion of state law allowing for unannounced inspections of these homes by state regulators and fire marshals. It passed.

"The enhancements are massive," said Brian Lee, former director of the Department of Elder Affairs' ombudsman program. "We see improvements in administrator accountability, regulatory authority, staff training, residents' rights and consumer information, and these are outstanding improvements."

As reported on the Herald's front page today, some of the proposals would:

• Strip the license of any home where a resident dies from abuse or neglect. Under current law, the agency can impose much weaker sanctions — or do nothing at all.

• Slap the maximum fines on homes caught abusing or neglecting residents to death, without resorting to making settlements.

• Dramatically increase the qualifications for ALF administrators, from a high school diploma to a college degree with coursework in health fields or two years of experience caring for residents.

• Impose criminal penalties for caregivers and administrators who falsify medical and other ALF records.

• Allow family members of residents to install so-called “Granny Cams” in rooms to help detect caregiver abuse, as long as relatives sign agreements to respect privacy of others.

• Allow residents to appeal a home’s decision to force them out, giving residents the chance to remain at the home until a hearing is held.

"I think what you will find is that the bill is reasonable," said Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, chairwoman of the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committe. "I know people in the industry were very concerned."

The legislation will go a long way toward protecting the lives of 80,000 people who live in assisted-living facilities in Florida, said Bob Sharpe, CEO of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health.

"If you are successful, you will have done a remarkable thing for the citizens of the state of Florida," he said.

-- Katie Sanders and Brittany Alana Davis