Gov. Mark Dayton and a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed major changes to the state's oversight of Minnesota's elder care facilities on Tuesday, aiming to reverse years of pervasive abuse and neglect of Minnesota's seniors that was only recently revealed.
Addressing widespread abuse of seniors — and the state's lax oversight — were a top priority for officials heading into 2018, following reporting by the Star Tribune last year that exposed maltreatment and the state's struggles to keep up with complaints. A scathing audit last week faulted "deep and pervasive failures" in the state's regulation for a 50 percent increase in the number of complaints in the last five years.
The legislation unveiled Tuesday would use nearly $15 million of the state's budget surplus to streamline reporting of abuse and neglect, allowing the Office of Health Facility Complaints to analyze incoming complaints to isolate trends or widespread issues. It also calls for a new licensing framework for assisted living centers and dementia care facilities — which are currently only licensed for home care services — and to impose stricter penalties on employees found to have threatened or abused seniors.
Dayton said he accepted blame for the regulatory lapses under his administration that allowed maltreatment of some of Minnesota's most vulnerable adults, saying fixing the state's oversight was one of his top priorities for his final year in office. But he also singled out the companies and care providers who have abused senior citizens.
"These are people who call themselves care providers," he said. "Some of the abuses that I have learned about are not only illegal, they are deeply immoral."
"The solution starts there," Dayton said.
The reaction to the abuse and the state's failing to address it has been swift. Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger resigned late last year, and the state's far larger Department of Human Services was brought in to help address systemic issues.
While state regulators have eliminated a backlog of more than 2,000 unreviewed complaints, the Office of Health Facility Complaints is still receiving more than 400 complaints each week.
The proposed legislation is the product of a working group Dayton convened last year, and it will need buy-in from Republicans who control the Legislature. Democratic Sen. Tony Lourey said he was confident lawmakers would act this session to make needed improvements.
"The Legislature really does need to respond. This transcends politics," he said.
Selling the legislation to Republicans may fall to Sen. Michelle Fischbach, the GOP lawmaker who ascended to become Dayton's lieutenant governor earlier this year and signed on to the proposal.
But it was met with swift criticism by other Republicans, who said the legislation did not make needed corrections at the Office of Health Facility Complaints. GOP Sen. Karin Housley said she would introduce her own bill this week.
"Nearly all the governor's recommendations come from his hand-picked working group, which I believe only reflect one side of an extremely emotional, complex situation," Housley said.