The Legislature got another oversight committee OK'd Wednesday, with not much time to spare and over opposition from at least 13 senators.
"I'm not exaggerating when I say I do think this resolution could not only save lives but improve the quality of life for individuals who reside at these facilities," said Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, who introduced the resolution to create a special oversight committee to investigate state-licensed mental health assisted-living facilities.
A woman living at Life Quest at the Coolidge Center in Palmer died in September after spending three days with life-threatening symptoms that included uncontrolled vomiting and diarrhea.
The Department of Health and Human Services wrote an 81-page report on violations found at the facility in June and July during inspections, and another six-page report after a visit in September. The reports were not released, however, until the department revoked Life Quest's mental health care license after the woman died.
The inspection report showed clients were not properly cared for, were unclean and not properly fed. There was not sufficient staff on duty at all times to meet clients' needs and staff was not properly trained. There was evidence clients were abused and neglected, and did not get proper medical and mental health care.
During the past four years, three state-licensed facilities have closed because of issues of neglect, abuse and mismanagement. Disability Rights Nebraska said HHS is aware of other facilities that have consistently failed to perform and have been under investigation for years. They include Prescott Place, Bel-Air, O.U.R. Homes, all in Lincoln, and Liberty House in Wahoo.
Sen. Sara Howard said the Lutheran Home in Omaha, in which some clients are disabled veterans, was recently without hot water for at least three weeks, with no way to do baths, dishes and other sanitation.
HHS was notified, "but they didn't do anything. And they haven't done anything," she said.
Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist, who opposed the resolution for the oversight committee, said it was important to take care of people with disabilities and to provide oversight, but she objected to creating a special committee. It could be taken care of in the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, she said.
Walz said the Health and Human Services Committee hadn't shown any interest in investigating the issue. It didn't advance a bill (LB1093) that would have established the office of the Inspector General of Nebraska Public Health to conduct reviews of state-licensed facilities. And it seemed to have no interest in doing an interim study.
Omaha Sen. Merv Riepe, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said its members are experts on the subject, and it is the job of the committee to establish sound policies.
He said the death at Life Quest was tragic. But the issues addressed in LR296 are complicated, and the HHS committee could do a better job of oversight.
Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said the assisted-living facility in his district was spotless.
"This is a witch hunt. Am I blunt enough?" Groene said. "This is not necessary.
"People die and accidents happen, if you're healthy or in assisted living or not."
In 2012, Disability Rights Nebraska started investigating the facilities, said Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz.
"I take seriously their requests for the Legislature's help in addressing these health and safety challenges in these facilities," she said.
Three years ago, the organization held a town hall on the issue, and HHS did a report.
"To my knowledge not a lot of those recommendations have been implemented," Bolz said.
The oversight committee would have seven members from the Legislature appointed by the Executive Board. It would study issues such as the lack of adequate conditions in the facilities, the treatment of clients, and effective development of regulations and licensure by the Division of Public Health.
A report on the oversight committee's findings would be due Dec. 15.