Gov. Mark Dayton unveiled a series of far-reaching proposals Tuesday to protect vulnerable adults from abuse and fix the state’s deeply flawed system for investigating maltreatment in senior care facilities.
Flanked by a bipartisan group of legislators at a morning news conference, Dayton outlined measures that would impose tougher penalties for criminal abuse, regulate certain new and growing branches of the industry and expand consumer protections for the roughly 82,000 Minnesotans who live in senior facilities across the state.
“I want these people who call themselves care providers to step up,” Dayton said. “Some of the abuses I’ve learned about are not only illegal, but they are deeply immoral.”
The proposal would establish a licensing system for the state’s nearly 1,200 assisted-living facilities, a fast-growing but lightly regulated segment of the care industry; increase civil and monetary penalties for perpetrators of abuse; enhance health and safety inspections; and give victims and their families better access to state investigators and their findings.
Dayton’s proposal would also address what elder care advocates see as a long-standing imbalance of power between elderly residents and the senior care industry. For instance, it would make it easier for families to sue facilities when their loved ones have died because of alleged abuse or neglect. Currently, Minnesota’s Survivor Law requires that a personal-injury case be dropped if the victim dies of unrelated causes.
The proposal would also give residents the right to appeal decisions by the managers of assisted-living facilities, such as involuntary discharges; and ensure that residents in these facilities would not be forced to move or have a roommate because they’re receiving Medicaid.
Many of Dayton’s ideas mirror a series of recommendations made earlier this year by a special work group composed of families of elder abuse victims and senior advocates, which concluded that Minnesota’s laws governing vulnerable adults had not kept pace with the growing complexity of the senior care industry.
In a lengthy report, the work group called for “immediate and dramatic fixes,” including licensure of assisted-living facilities and improved communication between agencies and victims of abuse, among other reforms.
Members of Minnesota AARP and other senior advocacy organizations appeared elated Tuesday morning after emerging from Dayton’s news conference.
“It’s a great day for vulnerable adults and their voices to be heard,” said Suzanne Scheller, an elder abuse attorney from Champlin and founder of Elder Voice Family Advocates, a coalition of family members that was part of the work group. “This balances the power for thousands of Minnesotans receiving services in these facilities.”
Still, the plan is likely to face resistance from representatives of the senior care industry; they expressed frustration Tuesday, saying that they were kept in the dark about the proposals.
Patti Cullen, president and chief executive of Care Providers of Minnesota, which represents nearly 900 senior care organizations across the state, said Dayton’s office ignored the industry’s repeated overtures to provide technical advice. As a result, she said, the work group never gauged the full implications of changing the state’s assisted-living licensing framework, among other changes.
“They are creating an unnecessary fight,” Cullen said. “We all want to prevent abuse and neglect, but now we’re put in the position of looking like we’re opposing good public policy just by asking questions.”
The proposal to license assisted-living facilities, which care for nearly 60,000 Minnesotans, is likely to be the most controversial. Currently, Minnesota is among a handful of states that does not license them, which means they are not subject to the same level of scrutiny as licensed nursing homes. Elder care advocates have long argued that this loophole no longer makes sense: Assisted-living facilities now care for a population that is more fragile, and requires more complex care, than when the facilities first appeared more than 20 years ago.
In an exhaustive review completed this month, the Minnesota Legislative Auditor found that Minnesota’s laws governing senior care facilities are unnecessarily complex, and that the state’s “limited oversight” of assisted-living facilities undercuts the protection of vulnerable adults.
“As it stands, we don’t even have a regulatory framework for seeking compliance, which is insane,” said Mary Jo George, associate state director of advocacy at Minnesota AARP.
The elder abuse work group was commissioned by Dayton last November after the publication of a five-part Star Tribune series documenting the state’s failure to investigate hundreds of serious crimes in senior homes across the state.
The series found that the Minnesota Department of Health had failed to keep pace with a dramatic surge in abuse and neglect allegations in recent years.
It also documented that hundreds of incidents — including beatings, sexual assaults and thefts — were going uninvestigated each year. When the state did investigate, cases could drag on for months or even years, frustrating families and undermining criminal prosecutions, the Star Tribune found.
The number of maltreatment allegations received by the Health Department’s Office of Health Facility Complaints has swelled from about 4,000 in 2010 to more than 25,000 in 2016. Yet only 3 percent were investigated on site by state inspectors in 2016.
“We have a magnitude that I think caught regulators unprepared, for which I take responsibility,” Dayton said.
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres