Why Is Florida — Of All States — Neglecting Its Seniors?

Anyone who’s been following the Miami Herald’s investigation of the wretched conditions in some of Florida’s assisted living facilities might wonder how the state could have cruelly turned its back on so many sick and helpless people.

The answer is as simple as it is sickening: Money.

Florida doesn’t spend enough of it enforcing the laws and regulations governing ALFs, while the industry spends a fortune buying off key state lawmakers with campaign donations.

One of them is Sen. Rene Garcia, a Republican from Hialeah who chairs the Health Regulation Committee. Remember this character’s name, in case he ever dreams of running for statewide office.

Garcia’s district includes more than 100 assisted living facilities, including some of the worst and most heavily fined in Miami-Dade. Thanks to Garcia and others, it’s not easy for one of these joints to get in trouble, no matter what horrors are taking place inside.

Statewide, more than 70 ALF residents are known to have perished from gangrene, starvation, narcotic overdoses and burns. At least 200 others have died under suspicious circumstances, but the records have been sealed.

In one case, caregivers at an ALF in Manatee County managed to overlook an 85-year-old man while nearly half of his face was consumed by a cancerous tumor. In another facility, three people died, including a senior who fell down 24 separate times.

Despite all this, legislators beholden to ALF lobbyists assiduously labored to gut the laws meant to keep these homes safe. Too many rules and regulations, they complained.

Heck, it’s only human suffering we’re talking about.

Even as the authorities found residents neglected, abused and even dying, lawmakers like Garcia — who are rarely made to sleep in their own urine — were working aggressively on behalf of the ALFs. Their mission was to shrink state oversight, minimize the number of inspections and make it harder to shut down rogue facilities.

This year in Tallahassee, 23 bills were introduced to weaken state supervision over ALFs. Most of them were written by the Florida Assisted Living Association, the industry lobby group. No one is more slavishly obedient to their wishes than Garcia, who collected $8,100 in campaign contributions from ALF corporate interests.

One of the bright ideas in Garcia’s proposal would have removed the state’s power to automatically shut down the most dangerous ALFs — the ones found to repeatedly put residents at risk of death — after two more Class I violations.

Garcia also pushed to block the state from slapping additional fines on ALFs when inspectors catch workers breaking the law. Without that enforcement measure facing them, operators wouldn’t have much incentive to clean up their acts.

When questioned by reporters, Garcia said he didn’t actually favor reducing legal protections for residents in assisted living facilities. He said the legislation he sponsored was mostly initiated by FALA, the ALF lobby group — a pathetic excuse that tells you all you need to know about how things work at the Capitol.

Furthermore, Garcia said he wasn’t aware of language in his own proposal that would have stripped regulators of the authority to revoke the licenses of ALFs with multiple critical violations.

“I just don’t recall that,” he said.

People are dying under the most miserable conditions, and this guy conveniently can’t remember pimping a law that would have made things even worse.

He’s not the only one who’s foggy these days. Sen. Don Gaetz, a Destin Republican, said he couldn’t recall language in one of his own co-sponsored bills that stopped the state from bringing medical teams to ALFs to decide whether sick residents should be removed from the homes for their own safety.

“I just don’t remember,” Gaetz said.

The legislation passed in 2009. Now the ALF operators, not doctors, decide when an ailing resident should be moved. No big deal, unless it happens to be your grandmother or grandfather who’s in trouble.

To further deter nosy inspectors, lawmakers have kept on a shoestring budget the agency charged with overseeing ALFs. Over the last decade, investigations of serious incidents involving residents have declined radically even as the toll of deaths and abuse cases has risen.

Only seven homes were closed during a two-year-period in which the state could have shut down 70, based on repeated violations that endangered residents, fatally in some cases.

The Herald’s series temporarily stalled many of this year’s worst bills, including Garcia’s, but they’ll be back the next session. Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott has put together a task force heavily weighted toward the ALF industry (big surprise), which began meeting last week.

In the fall, a group of state senators will convene to draw up new legislation that supposedly would increase inspections of ALFs and hike penalties for repeat offenders. The best choice to chair the panel would have been Ronda Storms, a Republican from Valrico who heads the Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.

Storms has been a strong advocate for strengthening supervision and cracking down on assisted living facilities that neglect frail and sick residents. As leader of the reform committee she would have brought some credibility and compassion to a debate that’s been dominated by colleagues who sold out to the industry.

But Senate President Mike Haridopolos made sure that the ALF owners will have little to worry about this autumn. Instead of appointing Storms to run the committee, he appointed none other than Rene Garcia.

If it weren’t so tragic, you’d almost have to laugh.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

(c) 2011, The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.

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