ST. PAUL, Minn. - For months, senior citizen advocates told their stories of family members being abused and neglected in senior care facilities.
Politicians promised action. And yet the 2018 legislative session ended without any change.
“It just rips your heart out,” said Kristine Sundberg, president of Elder Voice Family Advocates, a group formed to speak out for seniors in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Who does Sundberg blame for that? She says there is plenty of fault to go around but in the end, “I think leadership is the reason that things didn’t go,” she said.
By “leadership” Sundberg is referring to Republican leaders in the Minnesota Senate and especially in the House. She says they made a political decision not to take a standalone vote on senior care protections. Instead, they wrapped a watered-down version of the proposals into a 900-page spending bill Governor Mark Dayton had already pledged to veto.
Sundberg says that move denied people the right to see where their lawmakers stand. Lawmakers never had to go on the record voting against protections for seniors.
“It’s kind of a cowardly way to go about this process,” she said. “Debate it. Vote on it. Don’t play these games with it.”
Sundberg and the AARP do credit some lawmakers like Senator Karin Housley (R-St. Mary’s Point) who they say worked hard until the end to get an elder care bill to the floor.
“They did extraordinary work on our behalf,” Sundberg said.
“But they couldn’t get it across the finish line?” KARE 11 investigates asked. “No,” she said.
Housley, a Republican who is running for U.S. Senate, pledged in a campaign video this winter, “You have my word our elder population will be protected.”
And yet she couldn’t even get a vote on her comprehensive bill in the GOP-controlled legislature.
“It is very, very frustrating,” she said of the lack of movement on elder care protection this session.
Even so, she blames Democratic Governor Mark Dayton for vetoing the spending bill that contained the provisions that did pass. House Republicans argue those proposed reforms addressed the recommendations made in a report by the Legislative Auditor.
“I blame the Governor. He had a really good bill sitting in front of him and he could’ve done something. He hasn’t done anything for eight years,” Housley said.
But advocates like Sundberg, the AARP and the Alzheimer’s Association disagree. They urged Governor Dayton to veto that bill.
“It was so weakened that it actually took us backward in some respects,” Sundberg explained.
Housley held a news conference Wednesday calling on the governor to call a special session to address elder abuse. Dayton quickly shot down the idea, saying lawmakers had the chance to pass bills during the session that ended just last week, but failed.
So where does this leave seniors?
As it stands, Minnesota is still the only state without a specific licensing structure for assisted living facilities. There’s no law here that allows families to sue for abuse and neglect once their loved one has died. And fines for abuse and neglect at senior homes remain low, topping out at $5,000 even in the case of a death.
Elder Voice Family Advocates say they will continue to work on this issue through the summer and will make it a key issue in the fall elections.
“A lot of our folks are angry,” Sundberg said. “But we’re going to convert that anger into action.”