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Going into the last day of session, door may slam on ALF reform

As the door prepares to slam on this year's session, the sweeping protections lawmakers promised for the state's frail and disabled in assisted living facilities appear in trouble.

The lack of action comes after a years-long Miami Herald investigation that exposed gross mismanagement, abuse, and neglect at some assisted living facilities, with violations occuring frequently enough to cause at least one resident death per month.

The series prompted Gov. Rick Scott  to appoint task forces and promise meaningful reform, while a Miami-Dade Grand Jury investigated shortcomings in regulations and enforcement. The Legislature, promising to reverse laws influenced by powerful lobby groups, rolled out proposals that resident advocates hailed as the most sweeping in the nation.

SB 2074, for example, sponsored by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, proposed shutting down assisted living facilities that cause a resident's death and offering protections for residents who get kicked out of their homes.

Yet, just before the close of session, Garcia abandoned his far-reaching proposal in favor of a House bill that offers less protections. The House measure would impose limited fines and require additional schooling for ALF administrators, but it would also decrease inspections for homes that acquire certain accreditations.

"If this is the bill that is laid on the table for the Governor, there will be a victory parade for providers while residents suffer through a profound loss," said resident advocate and former long-term care ombudsman Brian Lee.

When the proposal was introduced on the Senate floor today, Garcia postponed the vote and said he's still negotiating the details with resident advocate Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico.

Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Sunrise, said she’s working with Storms to give the bill more teeth.

“We are introducing an amendment that encompasses parts of the House bill and the two Senate committee bills,” she wrote in a text. “The House bill alone does not include enough reform.”

It’s unclear whether the proposal can resurface as the clock ticks down. If the amended bill passes the Senate, it will bounce back to the House, which is likely to spend most of tomorrow debating the budget and may run out of time, said Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah Gardens, sponsor of the House bill.

Gonzalez expressed frustration because he passed his bill and kicked it to the Senate for approval last week.

The Senate delayed addressing the proposal until the session is down to the wire, and senators jeopardize the bill as they tack it with late-filed amendments in a last ditch effort to get their priorities passed, he said.

“We've got a little over 24 hours to do this," Gonzalez said Thursday afternoon. "Just by (Garcia) sending it back to the House, it could be dead already. I told him this...we're running out of time...we need to get this bill and pass it out and get something on the books.”

Asked recently by the Herald/Times, Scott said he supports the reform proposals, but did not say whether he would press leaders to pass them.