Florida State Senator: Hit Unlicensed Assisted Living Facilities ‘With A Hammer’

Heritage Senior Living of Ocala is located at 14343 W Highway 40 in Ocala. The manager of Heritage Senior Living looks out from the property. She declined to comment on the story.
The manager of Heritage Senior Living, 14343 W. Highway 40, in Ocala, looks out from the property after asking WUFT News reporters to leave on Oct. 21.” credit=”Katie Campbell / WUFT News

What appears to be a cozy bed and breakfast on Highway 40 in Ocala remains a source of confusion this month after discussion of tighter restrictions on assisted living facilities began in Tallahassee.

Heritage Senior Living of Ocala was identified as an unlicensed assisted living facility by the Agency for Health Care Administration (ACHA) on June 5.

State investigators from the AHCA are responsible for making unscheduled inspections on assisted living facilities and determining whether facilities are currently licensed and meeting state regulations on care. Full documentation of rules and standards expected of ALFs is available through the Florida Administrative Register and Florida Administrative Code.

According to Shelisha Coleman, ACHA’s press secretary, Heritage Senior Living was one of seven such locations whose owners were identified in North Central Florida between April and June. The facilities identified are:

Name Address City Date cited
Ada Mazon 20 NW 15th Street High Springs April 4
Mary Alexander 2117 SW 153 Loop Ocala May 17
Mary Alexander 15048 SW 25 Circle Ocala May 17
Mary Alexander 14115 SW 78 Terrace Ocala May 17
Mary Alexander 13950 SE 36 Avenue Summerfield May 17
Anita Helling/Heritage Senior Living 14343 West Highway 40 Ocala June 5
Karmoon Sukhraj 5391 Baldock Ave Spring Hill June 12

On Oct. 21, a female manager and assistant manager of Heritage Senior Living, neither of whom gave their name, refused to comment on the facility’s investigation and status.

Two WUFT News reporters visited Heritage Senior Living because it stood out among the other properties — single-family residences — on the above list. The facility’s manager, visibly flustered by the visit, questioned one elderly person who was present, “Did you speak to those reporters?”

Paul Obin was listed as the vice president of marketing for Southeast Senior Care Management Group on a YouTube video posted on May 3 advertising the property. Obin said a mistake was made in regard to the license: he described Heritage Senior Living as an independent senior living facility, not an assisted living facility.

Obin declined to give the name of the facility’s manager and assistant manager. He said reporters had no reason to be on the property.

Phone numbers on record for owner Christa Gross David Cornett Jr., the main contact for Heritage Country Inn the property’s registered name, which is officially recognized as a bed and breakfast were disconnected. Another listed owner, Leo Coutts, did not return a request for comment.

Impending legislative action

A Florida Senate panel’s call for a crackdown on unlicensed activities could ignite a bigger fight against facilities like those above.

On Oct. 8, a the panel called for the AHCA to draft legislation allowing the state to shut down unlicensed assisted living facilities as quickly as possible. Sen. Alan Hays, the Umatilla Republican and vice-chairman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, said that’s what needs to be done.

(Map information: Using an Agency for Health Care Administration database, this map locates the licensed assisted living facilities in North Central Florida and provides basic information about each. Source: ACHA)

Hays said current statutes give the AHCA more authority to take “deliberate, decisive action” against licensed facilities than against unlicensed facilities.

“And that’s just an absurd situation to me,” he said. “To me, if it’s an unlicensed facility, they ought to put a lock on the front door right away and say, ‘You’re out of business.’”

That’s a harsh stance, Hays said, so legislators and the AHCA are trying to find a way to create legislation that wouldn’t hinder licensed facilities while allowing the state to move against assisted living facilities, or ALFs, which are more difficult to regulate, as they are often not registered with state agencies.

Even in some cases when investigators were able to identify unlicensed facilities, Hays said they were allowed to remain open.

“They would let them continue to operate, give them a slap on the wrist and say, ‘You’ve got to correct this,’” he said. “Then when they would come back, they hadn’t corrected anything. And it’s just absolutely inexcusable.”

To remedy the situation, he said there needs to be policy reform, so even if facilities aren’t looking out for their residents, the state can.

Who to believe? Facilities or the state?

According to a Sept. 10 AHCA press release, one woman was responsible for running three unlicensed ALFs in Ocala.

Mary Alexander was arrested for opening unlicensed ALFs in October 2009 and issued an emergency order for immediate suspension on her licensed facility the following November.

Alexander was not deterred.

She was arrested for similar charges in June, according to the Ocala Star-Banner. She pleaded not guilty on two charges of operating an unlicensed assisted living facility and one count of neglect of a disabled or elderly adult, according to the Marion County Clerk of the Circuit Court.

Alexander said she believes this is a racial issue.

“They’ve really violated and traumatized my life, my family and my residents,” she said. “I’m still a good person.”

She maintained her innocence and said she won’t stop fighting. The next court date in her trial, she said, is Nov. 6.

Alexander’s attorney Todd Hopson said she had licenses for her facilities renewed on May 6 and June 5. Hopson said Alexander provides homeless people with care the state is unable to give them.

“From our perspective,” Hopson said, “this is a case of no good deed goes unpunished.”

‘Unscrupulous people’

The same list Shelisha Coleman provided that identified Heritage Senior Living also listed Alexander as the operator of a fourth unlicensed ALF in Spring Hill.

Though families may think their loved ones are in capable hands, Sen. Alan Hays said, the reality is not always so accommodating.

“The reality is,” he said, “there are, sadly, some very unscrupulous people in this world that will take advantage of elders who are incapacitated.”

Not only are concerns for safety and proper care of the elderly emerging, but so is the perception of Florida as a safe place for the old.

“We have high-quality facilities in Florida,” said Kristen Knapp, director of communications for Florida Health Care Administration, “and I think what’s happening, unfortunately, is there’s a few bad actors that have been reported on because the media focuses on those smaller situations. And that overshadows the many, many hundreds of facilities that are providing good quality care.”

Knapp said she fears these unlicensed facilities are painting a negative image for Florida retirement offerings. With more baby boomers needing care and deciding where their needs will best be met, Florida’s image could mean everything.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, the Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Children, Families and Elder Affairs, is pushing this latest effort by the Senate and knows the state’s reputation for senior care is at risk because of unlicensed activity.

“There’s a message that needs to come out of Florida,” Sobel said, according to the News Service of Florida. “We’re going to protect our seniors.”

Knapp said after largely sitting on the sidelines over legislation, the Florida Health Care Association is looking forward to working with the Senate to build reforms without employing unnecessary measures.

“I think we’re all on the same page in wanting to ensure that the seniors residing in ALFs get the highest quality of care in the safest environment,” she said.

The goal, Knapp said, is to achieve a balance where patients are cared for without hindrance from unfunded mandates on associated homes and facilities.

Still, Hays wants to see unlicensed facilities in North Central Florida and beyond removed from the system.

“Treat them with a hammer,” he said.

Patrick Kelly contributed reporting.

About Katie Campbell

Katie is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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