Older residents facing large expenses and elder law attorneys called on lawmakers Tuesday to pass consumer protections for assisted living residents, saying they lack rights afforded to other tenants and should be covered under regulations in the attorney general's office.
Matthew Albanese, head of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, told the Committee on Elder Affairs that there's evidence that the state's aging population served by assisted living facilities needs stronger protections that are afforded under landlord-tenant laws.
Academy officials said thousands of complaints are filed against assisted living facilities, with may focused on staffing issues and a lack of training. Residents often also face an array of fees, for everything from laundry to TV and incontinence products, attorneys said.
"These problems tend to find us. This is a vulnerable population," said Albanese, testifying for legislation (H 599/S 156) that supporters say would aid older and frailer residents of Massachusetts who in the past may have been admitted to nursing homes.
The bills have been sponsored by Rep. Christine Barber and Sen. Patricia Jehlen, both Somerville Democrats. Jehlen co-chairs the Elder Affairs Committee.
Assisted living provides residents with dignity, privacy and independence, Massachusetts Assisted Living Association President and CEO Brian Doherty told the committee, and the proposed legislation is "unnecessary, duplicative and costly."
The bill would add costs without commensurate benefits and could even interfere with the ability of staff to assist residents, Doherty said, noting assisted living is regulated by the Executive Office of Elder Affairs and an ombudsman.
"We have not observed a lack of consumer protection," said Doherty, who could not offer Rep. Ruth Balser examples of how the bill would lead to duplicative measures when pressed on that issue by the state representative from Newton.
Asked recently about assisted living costs, an association official, citing data from 2013 to 2014 that she said was the "most comprehensive," pegged the average cost of a private room in an assisted living residence in Massachusetts at $65,940 per year. Elder law attorneys said costs can run much higher.
Lawmakers and elder advocates are also focused on the ongoing contraction in the nursing home industry, where closures are displacing residents and workers.
The Senate's fiscal 2020 budget proposal, released on Tuesday, calls for a task force to examine the industry, an idea first put forward in the House budget.
"We are dealing in an emergency," Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield, a member of the Elder Affairs Committee, said at Tuesday's hearing.
"We certainly agree that it gets worse and worse every day," James Willmuth, a senior policy analyst as 1199 SEIU, responded.
Willmuth testified for a bill creating an emergency task force, but told the committee he hoped lawmakers would use the budget to achieve the same goal.
Extra funding for nursing homes is an emerging area of potential disagreement between House and Senate budget writers; the Senate budget proposal, which is set for debate later this month, calls for a $15 million bump in nursing home assistance while the final House budget allocates an extra $35 million.