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Minnesota politicians join to fight elder abuse

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Lt. Gov. Michele Fischbach, also the state Senate president, agreed that elder care is a bipartisan issue at a Tuesday, March 13 news conference. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL—Democrats and Republicans are getting together to bolster Minnesota's response to serious lapses in care delivered to senior citizens.

State legislation to be considered soon was written to improve care already regulated by the state and to require assisted-living and dementia care facilities be licensed. Gov. Mark Dayton said he will ask legislators to appropriate nearly $15 million to make improvements in the rest of the current two-year budget; then, $25 million would be needed in the following two years.

"I am optimistic in a short and probably difficult (legislative) session, we will be able to come together on issues like this," Senate bill author Sen. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, said.

Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, also a state senator, said she, too, was hopeful.

"This is an issue that is bipartisan," the Paynesville Republican said. "It goes beyond any type of partisanship."

The issue arose in public last year when the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune printed a series of stories that showed state workers were doing a poor job inspecting facilities, such as nursing homes. The series brought up problems, such as reports of elder abuse never being investigated or being delayed weeks or months past deadlines.

Dayton apologized for the state's shortcomings in investigating the reports, but he said, the prime fault rests with facilities that are supposed to take care of Minnesota's elderly.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the massive backlog has been cut to manageable levels, but state law does not provide for inspections of dementia and assisted-living facilities.

"Our department will not rest until action is taken on every case and every Minnesotan gets the highest level of service and care," Malcolm said. "We can and must do better."

More than 54,000 Minnesotans are in the facilities that the new bills would license, Dayton said.

Rep. Liz Olson, D-Duluth, said more people are living in assisted-living and dementia facilities in recent years, influencing lawmakers who wrote the new bills. "These new proposals will provide greater safety, dignity and peace of mind to Minnesota seniors and their loved ones."

Among provisions in the legislative and Dayton proposals:

  • Reporting abuses of senior citizens would be streamlined and speeded up.
  • Communication with families filing complaints would be improved.
  • A legislative task force would be formed to draw up further recommendations for changes in coming years.
  • Grants to counties would be provided to investigate elder abuse cases.
  • Families would be allowed to place a camera in the room of a loved one to check on care being delivered.
  • A process would be established to appeal decisions made by providers and state agencies; families also would be able to take abuse claims to court.
  • New licensing requirements would be placed on dementia and assisted-living facilities.

Malcolm said the legislation would help make the rules consistent for various areas of elder care. "The patchwork of regulations in this field is quite extraordinary."

Lourey said he expects the current legislation to change as it moves through the Legislature, but the chairwoman of a Senate committee dealing with aging issues wants something different. Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point, said she plans to announce her version of an elder protection bill Wednesday, March 7.

She said her bill "will not ignore the critical oversight role played by the state."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.