Why is the bill offering protections for Minnesota seniors stalled?

Published 7:00 am Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

There’s an understandable sense of accomplishment in the voice of Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, as she talks about the elder care-protection legislation she worked on doggedly this session.

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After the Star Tribune’s “Left to Suffer” series detailed late last year the heartbreaking sexual assaults and other abuse suffered by older adults in facilities entrusted with their care, the Minnesota Legislature clearly had to act this session. That mission was underscored by two well-researched reports outlining gaps in oversight and consumer protections — particularly for assisted-living facilities — from the respected Office of the Legislative Auditor and a consumer work group convened by Gov. Mark Dayton.

To the Legislature’s credit, lawmakers made elder care a priority in the House and Senate. In the waning days of the 2018 session, Housley’s Senate bill offers the strongest reforms in elder care legislation that remains viable, particularly in regard to licensing assisted-living facilities. It ought to be sailing toward a floor vote instead of languishing in committee.

“This is my passion,” said Housley, who also is running for U.S. Senate. While her bill doesn’t check off every reform proposed by the governor’s consumer group, it clearly heeds the concerns raised there. The bill, which kept improving as the session went on, also reflects exceptional bipartisan Senate teamwork, with Sens. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, and Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, meriting praise.

With the bill unfortunately stalled over funding to implement reforms, it especially would be valuable for Fischbach, who is also the state’s lieutenant governor, to ramp up her public advocacy even more to bring the legislation, along with adequate state dollars, to the floor. And then shepherd it through the conference committee process, where some lawmakers may be inclined to support the less robust House reforms. Fischbach is one of the state’s most influential abortion opponents. Her powerful pro-life voice, wielded on behalf of those on the other end of the age spectrum, would be formidable.

The Minnesota nursing home and senior care industry deserves credit for backing a variety of reforms and acknowledging the need to modernize the assisted-living regulatory framework. While the state’s main trade group argues that the House bill offers up solid solutions, the Senate bill is nevertheless superior.

One key advantage: It offers a surer path to licensure for the state’s assisted-living residences. With far more Minnesotans living in these facilities than in nursing homes — about 60,000 vs. fewer than 28,000 — it’s time to license these facilities as many other states do. The Senate legislation, like the House bill, calls for a work group to study and outline a new licensing framework. The difference: The Senate bill authorizes state health officials to move forward if the Legislature doesn’t act on these recommendations.

The Senate bill also provides consumer safeguards, such as protections from “unfair or arbitrary” evictions and the right to place a camera in a private room, that the House bill does not.

The Star Tribune series spurred the resignation of former state Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger in December and substantive improvements to handle the maltreatment complaints lodged with the agency. Progress is being made, but work is needed elsewhere — a point hammered home by the legislative auditor’s report — to prevent abuse in the first place.

The improvements under consideration at the Capitol are a vital component of that prevention strategy, though ongoing work will still be necessary. The robust reforms in the Senate bill, combined with adequate resources to implement them, offer the strongest protections and provide a course correction at a critical time — as retiring baby boomers increasingly require long-term care.