Housley: After elder abuse allegations, the culture must change

Last month, horrifying instances of abuse and neglect at senior care facilities across Minnesota came to light in a Star Tribune special report. Among the many disturbing details, the report told a heartbreaking story of elderly Minnesotans subjected to physical, sexual, and emotional assault, robbery, and neglect at the hands of care providers or other residents, a state agency failing on its job of oversight and accountability, and families who are left waiting for answers.

The Star Tribune’s report also highlighted significant shortcomings at the Minnesota Department of Health’s Office of Health Facilities Complaints, the state agency tasked with investigating wrongdoing at senior care facilities, assisting families when something happens to a loved one, guiding facility training and response, and holding people accountable. This is echoed by one former agency employee who has gone public with her particularly troubling tale of a toxic work environment, harassment, and retaliation.

Initially, state officials decried the reports, pledging immediate action and additional oversight. Governor Dayton’s reaction to the failure of his own state agency was to announce a task force – but, as far as I know, the task force has not met, nor does it contain any policymakers or care providers.

Weeks later, and as the stories continue to pile up, there has been little action. The silence is deafening.

As chairwoman of the Minnesota Senate’s Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee, it has become my highest legislative priority to fiercely advocate for our elderly and vulnerable populations. In addition to working with stakeholders in identifying ways we can work together to combat the long-term challenges facing our state’s aging population, the committee also fulfills an oversight role.

For months, the committee and I have been repeating calls for increased transparency, more oversight, and sweeping changes at the Office of Health Facilities Complaints. I have requested prompt answers on the allegations, the Department of Health’s culture, and a pathway forward, but have been met with resistance on every front.

There is an urgent need for answers and accountability that cannot wait until the next legislative session. In too many cases, the that Minnesota’s senior care facilities will provide the best possible care to our loved ones becomes misplaced. We cannot afford to delay action for another working group, another task force, or until the next legislative session. Minnesotans deserve immediate answers and accountability.

And so, absent any answers or meaningful change, my cordial refrains turn to demands.

I demand accountability, transparency, and immediate attention from Gov. Dayton’s state agencies. I would like to hear from the Department of Health on what specific resources or legislative changes are needed to ensure an end to the abuse in our senior care facilities, how to change the bureaucratic culture of complacency within the Office of Health Facilities Complaints, and ways to provide accountability to those who have fallen victim to our state’s shortcomings.

The culture needs to change – and that change needs to come now. Our state’s seniors, and their loved ones, won’t put up with a brushoff.

Senator Karin Housley, of St. Mary’s Point, is in her second term representing District 39, which includes Stillwater, Forest Lake, Lake Elmo, and other communities in Chisago and Washington counties. She serves as chairwoman of the Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee.

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