Bill proposes tough penalties for neglect at senior care homes

Ross Perloe's mother died at a Sandy Springs assisted living facility in 2018 after being repeatedly bitten by ants. Here he's pictured at a press conference held at the state Capitol on Thursday to announce proposed new safeguards for state-regulated assisted living facilities and personal care homes. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

A group of Georgia lawmakers is pushing for more staffing, higher penalties and other safeguards meant to address alarming shortcomings found at some state-regulated assisted living facilities and personal care homes.

One measure, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Efstration, seeks to ensure that coroners are notified when a resident dies unexpectedly at a long-term care facility. That bill was filed Wednesday.

Rep. Sharon Cooper also announced Thursday that another bill would require more staff at night when residents can be most vulnerable, increase penalties, mandate new licensing for administrators and force proof of financial stability.

Rep. Sharon Cooper
Georgia House of Representatives photo

“There are good homes and assisted living facilities across this state. There are good administrators of those assisted living facilities,” the Marietta Republican said at a press conference held Thursday. “Unfortunately, the bad ones put everybody into a bad situation where we need to make corrections.”

Cooper’s proposal comes on the heels of an extensive Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation into senior care facilities in Georgia that found serious lapses that, in some cases, led to serious injury or death.

One of the personal stories highlighted in the series focused on Betty Perloe, who died in 2018 after ants attacked her in bed at a Sandy Springs assisted living facility. It was the second such attack she experienced.

“The facilities have to be held responsible,” said her son, Ross Perloe, who spoke at the press conference. “The facilities are beautiful. The care’s way down on the bottom of the list, and I think this bill will help.”

Specifically, Cooper’s bill would require one staff member for every 15 residents at all times. Today, the state allows facilities to get by at night with one staffer for 25 residents. At least two staff members would be required at work on site at any time, under the proposal.

It would also mandate certification for memory care units, which are specialized facilities that cater to residents living with Alzheimer’s or dementia. That would come with more oversight, higher staffing ratios and increased training.

“We appeal to assisted living providers to support stronger safety measures,” said Vicki Johnson, chair of the Georgia Council on Aging. “Their industry is too important to Georgia families to risk losing public trust.”

There is some early indication that the proposal – or some form of it – might be something the industry can live with. Cooper was able to enlist the support of Rep. John LaHood, a Valdosta Republican who owns assisted living facilities in south Georgia.

Rep. John LaHood
Georgia House of Representatives photo

“When bad outcomes are highlighted in the media or when any family has a negative outcome, that hurts the entire the industry,” LaHood said. “So we want to raise the minimum standards to help to ensure that families’ expectations are met, that residents are getting the care they need and have a choice to age in place.”

LaHood said later that he worked with Cooper on ways to raise those minimum standards without unreasonably hiking costs that will ultimately fall to families.

As an example, LaHood said he talked Cooper out of requiring facilities to have a nurse on site around the clock. Instead, a nurse would be required for a set number of hours based on the number of residents. That retains qualities more typical of an assisted living facility where residents get support for daily living activities, as opposed to nursing homes where more medical care is provided to people who can’t live independently.

“We’re not a nursing home. We don’t want to be nursing homes. Families know we’re not nursing homes,” LaHood said. “When residents are sleeping at night, they don’t want to be paying for a nurse sitting behind a desk. They want to pay for the things that matter most to them.”