ST. PAUL — Elder advocates, senior housing industry officials, state lawmakers and health department regulators said this week that they'd struck a deal to license assisted living facilities and increase protections for their residents.
But as the clock ticked down on the 2019 legislative session, some wondered whether lawmakers would have enough time to complete it this year.
The sweeping proposal would make Minnesota the last state in the nation to license assisted living facilities and set a base level of care required for residents, which would be made clear to them and to their family members before they sign a contract.
It would also set in place new protections for tens of thousands of older adults who live in assisted living facilities. Among them is a provision allowing them to place video cameras or other recording devices in their rooms. And they would be protected against retaliation or other adverse actions for taking those recordings or for reporting abuse or inadequate care.
The legislation comes after an uptick in reports of inadequate care and of abuse at senior housing facilities. The Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2017 outlined the abuse in a reporting series.
Those reports spurred legislation that failed last year after the senior housing industry took issue with some of the proposed changes. And in the months since, industry officials, elder advocates, state health officials and others came together to iron out a proposal to which they could all agree.
“Last year when we were having this debate, quite honestly, we were talking past each other,” Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told lawmakers on Friday, May 17.
But in the months that followed, the stakeholder groups came together to hash out a deal, Malcolm said. And while it was still being tweaked in the final hours of the legislative session, it is incumbent upon the Legislature and the governor to approve the measure and sign it into law this year, she and a coalition of stakeholders said in a letter this week.
“No one thinks this is perfect," Malcolm said Friday. "We all know we will learn more as we build this framework and we will be back for improvements.”
The Minnesota House of Representatives approved the bill last week and on Friday, House members of the Health and Human Services budget conference committee added the new language to their spending proposal.
But while the public and stakeholder support was behind the bill, its sponsors worried that it could still be left behind in the final days of the legislative session.
Bill author Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, sounded skeptical when asked whether the measure could pass in the remaining three days of the legislative session, but suggested that the proposal could move forward in a special session.
"There's nothing to stop it except politics," Schultz said. "And I hope they don’t put politics above people’s lives."
The governor has not yet signaled he would call a special session to finish the Legislature's work this year, but as closed-door budget negotiations carried on Friday it was unclear whether there'd be time to wrap up without one.
On Friday, Schultz said the final point left to resolve was the time frame a senior or his or her family has to notify an assisted living facility if they choose to install an audio or video recording device in their room. Assisted living facility administrators have said they should be notified immediately, while elder advocates have said residents should have up to a month of recordings before they have to notify a facility of the footage.
The bill's Senate sponsor Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point, said she was very confident that the measure would get done this year. And she said whether it moves as a separate bill or as a piece of a larger omnibus spending bill that it would get approved.
"Leadership on both sides and in both bodies agreed that this is a priority," Housley said. "It has to get done this year because if it doesn't, it never will."