The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL
Florida's shameful failure
OUR OPINION: State allows abuse of elderly or mentally ill Floridians in
BY THE MIAMI HERALD EDITORIAL
They're locked down in violation of the law. Tied with ropes. Given
tranquilizers without a doctor's order. It has happened to Florida's most
vulnerable, the elderly or mentally ill, at least 1,732 times since 2002 in
homes licensed by the state. Most of those homes have been slapped with a
relatively small fine and nothing more.
Society's most important obligation is to protect the most vulnerable among
us - the elderly, infirm and children. Reasonable people may disagree on
how best to meet that duty, but Floridians resoundingly look to their
government for a minimum of protection.
Yet our state government is failing miserably on that front - failing to
protect our poorest of seniors and the mentally ill from abuse and neglect.
And it was failing long before Florida faced an economic tumble. Worse yet,
these are folks living in homes that taxpayers finance through Medicaid,
the federal-state partnership that puts Florida in charge of caring for the
poorest sick residents.
As detailed in Neglected to Death, The Miami Herald's yearlong
investigation, Florida's assisted-living law - once hailed as the most
progressive in the nation - is often ignored by the state agency charged
with policing abuses. Year after year, the Agency for Health Care
Administration gives violators in state-licensed homes pass after pass to
keep operating, often after hundreds of violations have been racked up and
even after the weak and defenseless die from abuse or neglect.
Florida toughened penalties for abuse of elderly and disabled people in
2008, but what's the point if the state's lax oversight of problematic
homes continues? Seventy people have died from abuse or neglect at
state-licensed homes since 2002. Yet Florida has closed only one-tenth of
the 70 worst homes cited the past two years.
Local jurisdictions like the Miami-Dade Court's mental health project have
had to step in to protect the vulnerable by refusing to send them to unsafe
state-licensed facilities. In Broward, police and rescue have received more
than 13,250 calls since 2005 involving a dozen assisted living facilities.
The state could have suspended and even revoked the licenses of the worst
homes but didn't. It could levy stiffer fines yet The Herald found AHCA
took in just $650,000 in fines in 2009, little more than 10 percent of the
$6 million it imposed.
Why is state government reneging on its obligation to protect taxpayers,
The Florida Legislature has been complicit. Even as Florida's elderly
population has boomed - with the Sunshine State leading the nation in the
percentage of residents 85 and older - we rank at the bottom of public
spending on care for the oldest elders.
AHCA, which oversees Florida's 2,850 assisted-living facilities, or ALFs,
has the responsibility to care for more than 80,000 people living in them.
Incredibly it doesn't inspect those facilities but once every two years!
That's because in 1993, the Legislature refused to increase funding for
inspections. In 2001, legislators made it harder for ALF residents or their
families to sue owners of troubled facitilies and reduced the amount of
liability insurance the homes would have to buy - all an invitation for
more abuse. Beyond shameful.