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Working group calls for 'immediate and dramatic' reform in elder care

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The shocking disturbing and growing numbers of allegations of abuse and neglect leveled against many senior care facilities around Minnesota made public by a series of media reports a few months ago have resulted in a new reportthat calls for "immediate and dramatic reform" in how Minnesota regulates those businesses. 

A working group of elder care experts and advocates worked on the recommendations after it came to light that a tiny fraction of the growing numbers of allegations are actually investigated by the state. MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke with Mary Jo George from AARP of Minnesota and the chairperson of working group making recommendations. 

Comments have been edited for clarity and conciseness. 

There is a long list of recommendations to lawmakers among them strengthening criminal penalties for those found guilty of abuse or neglect. Why aren't there people in jail right now for some of these horrible cases?

We believe we have to give prosecutors more power to be able to put people in jail. I think right now if you are a vulnerable adult who's terrorized and it doesn't actually result in physical injuries that might not rise to the level of a crime. So we definitely want to change some of our criminal penalties and accelerate the information from our regulatory department to law enforcement so that we can charge people and hold them accountable. 

I recall signing forms shortly before my father was wheeled into a northern Minnesota care center. It required my family to submit to mediation if there was a problem or you recommend it. Are you recommending changes to allow families to bring civil cases if there are issues?

Yes we are. I think one of the things that we know is today we have many rights in statute, but they're not strong if people cannot in fact use the courts to adjudicate the ones that have been done to them. I know at the time of signing, some of the information can be very confusing for families. Some arbitration clauses really tip the scale in favor of the industry and not the consumer, and so many of our recommendations really look to get the balance back in favor of the older adults and their family. 

Some people were surprised to learn in these media reports that assisted living facilities, which are growing in popularity, are less stringently regulated than, for example, nursing homes. Under your recommendations would that change?

Yes. Today we think it's a fairly complicated marketplace. People are supposed to sign two contracts: one for the housing and one for the services. I think the bifurcation of these services can result in a lot of communication breakdowns and a lot of disruption in care. One of the things that we'll be asking for is that older, vulnerable adults have the right to discharge appeal rights so that if they're evicted, we can actually have a hearing where people can figure out if that is the right thing to do. You know we've got to quit thinking of these people merely as tenants in apartments but really older, vulnerable adults. I think Minnesota is an outlier. We really are one of the few states that does not require licensure of these settings. 

Was the extent of the problem the allegations the backlog of abuse cases known before the Star Tribune and KARE 11 got onto this and started to investigate months ago?

I think it was early 2016 when the department came to us to say they were really very concerned with the increases in the number of maltreatment reports. They estimate that there is about a 600 percent increase since 2010. But also the fact that they were investigating only 1 percent of the cases from providers and only 10 percent from individuals. The Dayton administration is taking steps now to make fixes. We don't want the public to lose faith in our regulatory system because I think there are fixes is on the way now that are improving the system. But we do go beyond some of the internal fixes and we call for more fines be utilized, especially in cases of serious harms or egregious cases. And today they're only surveying these facilities once every three years. So we think we need to do a better job of having the survey done more frequently in order to prevent certain videos that could be going on. 

Click the audio player to hear the whole interview.