May 13, 2014

ALF reforms fail again in Legislature

TALLAHASSEE -- Legislative leaders identified reform of Florida’s assisted-living facilities as one of their top goals this session, but once again lawmakers did not adopt measures to improve conditions in the 3,048 facilities around the state.

It is the third year the Legislature has not passed reforms proposed after a 2011 Miami Herald investigation that revealed the neglect, abuse and death of residents at some in ALFs.

The most recent Senate and House proposals fell apart in the final days when the House attached other health care related bills to the Senate’s ALF bill and they couldn’t resolve their differences.

“We still have the same antiquated, dangerous system that was in place when the Miami Herald wrote its series,” said Brian Lee, executive director of Families for Better Care. The state “has not fixed the abuse and neglect, and residents are still in trouble.”

Getting rid of the “bad apples” in the ALF industry and adding more oversight affects not only the elderly who live in facilities that can house a total of more than 80,000 residents, but also Florida’s economy and future generations, said Jack McRay, advocacy manager for AARP Florida.

“Florida seniors pay more in taxes than they get back in services,” McRay said. “It’s essential that they are able to remain and stay in Florida... We need to get it right.”

What happened this session “is a classic example of politics again trumping policy,” McRay said. “It became part of a healthcare ‘train’ that became a train wreck.”

The Senate unanimously passed SB 248 early in the session. The House passed its version, HB 573, at the end of April. While House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz identified ALF reform as one of their session goals in their “Work Plan 2014” program, it failed to make any progress.

Gaetz blames the House, and the ALF industry, for the bill’s demise.

“It wasn’t the trains that killed the bill. It was the House that killed the bill,’’ he  told the Herald/Times. “Speaker Weatherford gave me his commitment they would try to do this. The ALF industry lobbied very hard against reforms. They lost a lot of credibility. It’s a real shame.”

He said that when the House bill began to be “picked apart” in that chamber, he urged the Senate prime sponsor, Sen. Eleanoer Sobel, D-Hollywood, to start attaching it to several high priority House bills. In retaliation, the House attached language to the ALF bill that the Senate didn’t want -- language about surgery centers and visitation rights for grandparents.

“Healthcare is a complex issue, and we just weren’t able to get agreement between the two chambers,” Weatherford said after the session ended May 2.

Gaetz said he vowed to be Sobel’s first co-sponsor and will work to pass the bill next year.

"Frankly,’’ he said. “Those of us who support her efforts need a little bit more enthusiastic help.”

Sobel and House sponsor, Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, both vowed to renew their efforts next session.

"I’m very disappointed,” said Sobel, who also blamed “special interests” for the bill’s failure. “I believe we were very close and got further than we have in previous years,” she said.

Ahern said the important thing for next year “is to agree on something the first month of session and get this done early.”

Among the provisions, the ALF bill would have required facilities with one or more, rather than three or more, state-supported mental health residents obtain a limited mental health license; authorized ALF staff members, with increased training, to perform additional medication-related duties; and to assist with the self-administration of medication with increased training.

The most contentious issue was a new rating system for all licensed ALFs, similar to the system used for nursing homes. It would help consumers pick the best home for their loved ones. Family members often find themselves in a quandary when the hospital discharges a patient who cannot go home, McRay said.

“The consumer doesn’t know where to go or which ALFs are good and which are bad. A rating system has worked very well with nursing homes.”

The idea of a ratings system rankled the ALF industry. One industry group, the Florida Assisted Living Association (FALA), raised objections that people could post anonymous, possibly damaging comments on a website that would be managed by the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration.

The ratings system, along with a change in the fine structure that FALA said could affect smaller homes, were among the group’s key objections, said  Shaddrick Haston, its CEO, but he contends that members were not trying to sabotage the bill.

“Actually, most of the bill had great things to help residents age in place,” said Haston, who is AHCA’s former head of licensing for assisted-living facilities. “The industry wanted an ALF bill this year.”

One concern of Lee's, director of Families for Better Care, was a change that would reduce monitoring visits for homes that met certain criteria. Even a home that has had a good reputation can falter, he said.

In the fall, he noted, the state fined the Royal Palm Retirement Centre, an ALF in Port Charlotte, $22,500 for several violations found during a visit. AHCA’s inspection report noted that among resident-care problems, the facility “failed to provide adequate nursing supervision in providing care for four insulin-dependent diabetic residents.”

AHCA, Lee said, “needs to put more boots on the ground in ALFs, not fewer.”

Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Rochelle Koff at rkoff@miamiherald.com

April 02, 2014

Senate advances sweeping child welfare reforms; will money follow?

Innocents LostA key Senate committee approved a sweeping overhaul of Florida’s child welfare law Wednesday, the first step toward passage of a series of reforms designed to stanch the deaths of children at the hands of their parents or other caregivers.

The proposal, an amendment to SB 1666 approved by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, is the most significant revamp of the state’s child welfare system in at least a decade. It aims to increase the quality and quantity of child protection investigators and strengthen the ability of the state to remove a vulnerable child from an unsafe home after the parents have demonstrated a pattern of neglect or abuse.

The 142-page bill merges several different Senate bills and adopts language from a companion measure passed out of a House committee last week. It contains several recommendations from Innocents Lost, a Miami Herald series that detailed the deaths of 477 Florida children whose families had prior contact with the Florida Department of Children & Families.

“We have had some of the best and brightest minds working on this and we are troubled by the 477 innocent lives lost, as written by the Miami Herald,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, who chairs the Senate Families and Elder Affairs Committee. “This is a tremendous movement from the past.” Story here. 

 

 

March 06, 2014

GOP leaders approve Capitol ban on protests, but does it go too far?

@mikevansickler

Capitol protests, like last summer’s 31-day sit-in by the Dream Defenders, are no longer allowed thanks to a rule change that will limit more than just demonstrations.

With little fanfare, Gov. Rick Scott, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford approved a proposed rule by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that bans overnight stays at the Capitol and shoos members of the public from the building after 5 p.m. or 30 minutes after an official function.

Members of the public who don’t have a Capitol Access Card, or who aren’t the guests of staff or lawmakers, will be told to leave after those times. That sets up a scenario that sounds problematic for free speech advocates.

“Those invited to stay could stay, but those exercising their First Amendment right would be told to leave,” said Barbara Peterson, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation. “If the building is open to others, why wouldn’t it be open to me? I would argue it would violate the First Amendment.”

 

Continue reading "GOP leaders approve Capitol ban on protests, but does it go too far?" »

March 04, 2014

Senate President Gaetz says don't expect a quiet 'second half' from him

@tbtia

Senate President Don Gaetz began the second session of his two-year term by telling his colleagues they should be proud of what they have already accomplished while still striving to fulfill their 2014 agenda.

His speech began with a series of sports references and other metaphors. The Senate has finished the "front nine" and was focused on the clubhouse, but also "5K into a 10K run." It is both "halftime" of the football game and "midterms" for the educators in the room. 

"The Florida Senate is already way ahead," the Niceville Republican said before launching into an overview of what the Legislature accomplished in 2013: ethics reforms and more career and technical education for high school students.

Among the priorities for 2014:

  • -revising the state's sexual predator laws
  • -creating more career and professional opportunitites for Florida's veterans
  • -assisted living facility reforms
  • -expanding the tax credit program to fund vouchers
  • -tying university funding to performance
  • -ethics reforms 
  • -Gov. Rick Scott's proposed tax cuts

Continue reading "Senate President Gaetz says don't expect a quiet 'second half' from him" »

January 29, 2014

Weatherford, Gaetz propose lower cap on tuition hikes; Scott outlines higher ed budget

@tbtia

Calling it an effort to reduce the burden on the state's prepaid tuition program, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have proposed limits on future tuition increases.

They would accomplish this by capping the tuition differential that state universities are allowed to request from the Florida Board of Governors. Under current law, the universities can requested additional tuition increases beyond whatever is approved by the Legislature as long as the total net increase does not exceed 15 percent.

During the economic downturn, many universities requested and were approved for tuition differential up to the 15-percent cap.

With Gov. Rick Scott's opposition to tuition increases well known, that has become less of an issue in recent years. Last year, tuition was held flat and no universities asked for any differential. A few also went so far as to reject a 1.7 percent tuition increase tied to inflation per state law, but most did not.

This morning, Scott also outlined his higher education budget proposal for 2014-2015. It reflect far less money than what the Board of Governors requested, and state universities are likely to continue lobbying the Legislature for more money.

Continue reading "Weatherford, Gaetz propose lower cap on tuition hikes; Scott outlines higher ed budget" »

January 14, 2014

Sen. Gaetz says he's 'studying' medical marijuana exception

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he is "looking at" supporting legislation to decriminalize non-euphoric strains of medical marijuana but there is no Senate proposal yet to address it.

He noted, however, that his wife "had tears running down her cheeks" as she recalled the testimony at a hearing of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee last week conducted by his son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar. Parents told legislators how the strain is their last, best hope of treating their children who suffer from debilitating seizures and, if Florida doesn't legalize it, many will move to Colorado to get treatment.

Gaetz said he has not yet made up his mind on the issue but, when he knocked on doors in a heavily-Republican district in the Panhandle town of Shalimar on Saturday and half of the people wanted to talk about the issue and all of them who talked about it supported it, he concluded: "it's certainly compelling,'' he said.

Gaetz noted that he has been on the opposite side of issues opposed by doctors, hospitals and the insurance industry before, citing his experience 30 years ago building the state's first for-profit hospice company and working to get legislation passed that allowed for palliative care.

"There were many in the traditional health care community who said, 'that's outrageous; you can't do that' and now palliative care is an accepted form of treatment,'' he said. "So, even in my lifetime, I've seen changes that are rather substantial. So, let's put it this way, I'm studying the issue...and being pummeled by my son." 

 

December 12, 2013

Senate president says bipartisan "initiative" aimed at sexual violent predators on the way

A bipartisan Senate initiative aimed at a “broad range” of issues related to violent sexual predators and the Department of Children & Families is expected to be announced by Christmas, Senate President Don Gaetz said Thursday.

“I think you will see in the next few days a bipartisan initiative in the Senate to address the issue of sexually violent predators and the broader issues associated with foster children and related issues in DCF,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said at a breakfast with reporters.

While he didn’t outline specifics, Gaetz said that Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and other senators have been working on these issues over the summer.

The violent sexual predator initiative would involve “a criminal justice element” that affects the jurisdiction of Senators Greg Evers, R-Baker, and Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island; a human services element that impacts Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring; and Sobel who “is right at Ground Zero,” Gaetz said.

He also discussed concerns about DCF. Gaetz, who attended part of a Senate Committee meeting on Children, Families and Elder Affairs Tuesday, said that policy changes should become part of the law. “I don’t think we can rely upon who’s in charge," Gaetz said. "I think we have to make some changes in statute."

Continue reading "Senate president says bipartisan "initiative" aimed at sexual violent predators on the way" »

December 02, 2013

Matt Gaetz's dog bites man, Gaetz gets sued

From the Associated Press: 

A Florida legislator has been sued over his pet dog biting someone in the face at a restaurant located near the state Capitol.

Christopher Kent filed a lawsuit last week in Leon County against Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. Gaetz is the son of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and recently held a lengthy legislative hearing over a proposal to repeal the state's contentious "stand your ground" law.

Kent's lawsuit alleges that Gaetz's dog bit him last May. The lawsuit contends the dog bite left Kent in pain, disfigured and with injuries that ultimately forced him to withdraw from law school. He said part of the reason he quit the University of Michigan is that the treatment has forced him to take antibiotics that cause stomach problems.

The lawsuit asks for payment of medical bills and damages connected to the bite, but it does not list an amount.

Gaetz on Monday acknowledged that his dog, Scarlet, did bite someone. Gaetz said he does not know the dog's breed because he rescued the 55-to-60-pound dog from a shelter about six years ago.

But he said he was unaware of the lawsuit until reached by a reporter. He said that he thought Kent's attorney was trying to discuss the issue with his insurance company.

Gaetz would not discuss any details about what happened.

"We have a system that allows the courts to make those decisions," said Gaetz, who is chairman of the House Criminal Justice subcommittee.

David Frank, the attorney representing Kent, declined to answer questions about the lawsuit.

November 04, 2013

Panel: Economic impact of marijuana "cannot be determined"

Legalizing medical marijuana could cost the state in excess of $1.1 million to operate each year, but any other financial or tax impact of offering the drug to the seriously ill is still unclear, according to a state economic panel.

The Office of Economic and Demographic Research’s Financial Impact Estimating Conference finished its analysis of the medical marijuana ballot initiative on Monday and concluded that “increased costs from this amendment to state and local governments cannot be determined.”

Aside from the Department of Health, which estimated that it would cost an estimated $1.1 million yearly to regulate the medical marijuana industry, most agencies said the cost would not be significant or did not yet have any hard numbers.

The report stated the health department’s costs “will likely be offset through fees charged to the medical marijuana industry and users."

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the Police Chiefs Association and the Sheriff's Association stated there will be increased costs based on the experience of other states, but did not offer any numbers.

The report estimates that about 417,000 to 452,000 will use medical marijuana based on figures from other states. It was also estimated that about 17,178 to 41,271 snowbirds may apply for ID cards to use medical marijuana.

The campaign to put a medical marijuana amendment on the ballot was launched by United for Care, spearheaded by high-profile, Orlando trial attorney John Morgan, whose law firm employs Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist.

Continue reading "Panel: Economic impact of marijuana "cannot be determined"" »

September 26, 2013

A candid moment with Senate President Don Gaetz

Don gaetz new

I've been operating the Tampa Bay Times' Instagram account all week, posting anything I saw interesting as the Legislature returned to Tallahassee for the first committee meetings of the 2014 session. I realized Wednesday night I didn't have any pictures of Senate President Don Gaetz, so I arranged to pay him a visit.

As luck would have it, Gaetz wasn't doing anything "interesting" when I stopped in this afternoon. The office was quiet and he was simply sitting at his desk working on upcoming speeches. So I spent a few minutes talking to him and trying to decide what to shoot.

I noticed a large poster on the wall. A guy named S.J. "Jerry" Gaetz was running for lieutenant governor in North Dakota. The poster was positioned in a way that Jerry would always be watching over Don as he worked at his desk.

"Is that your father?" I asked. Yes, Gaetz replied. "Did he win the election?" No.

The story that unfolded from there was sad and touching. We wrote about it in this 2008 profile of Gaetz, but it's worth telling again.

Continue reading "A candid moment with Senate President Don Gaetz" »