Alissa Halperin

is a senior attorney and deputy director of policy advocacy at the Pennsylvania Health Law Project

Imagine officials telling you that two recent deaths are under investigation at the assisted-living facility that's home to your ailing parent or grandparent.

For several dozen families, such a scenario played out this month at Willow Crest Manor in Willow Grove. The state shut down the facility, which has more than 50 beds, after two deaths and a long list of alleged violations, including understaffing and improperly dispensed medications. The owner is fighting to get his license back.

If the allegations are true, Willow Crest would be just the most recent example of inadequate care in Pennsylvania's assisted-living facilities and personal-care homes. The situation shows why so many groups that care about our elderly and disabled citizens are pushing for stronger assisted-living regulations.

The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare's proposed assisted-living regulations, which were released last summer, fell short of what's needed to prevent egregious problems at many assisted-living facilities. State officials got more than 200 comments from the public, state legislators and the Independent Regulatory Commission urging that changes be made before the regulations become final early next year.

The Pennsylvania Assisted Living Consumer Alliance - which represents 31 consumer groups, including mine - identified numerous shortcomings in the proposed regulations, which would deny basic consumer protections. The regulations would provide few guarantees that consumers would receive quality care.

For instance, the draft rules allow assisted-living facilities to operate with too little staff to provide needed care, and they do not require a specific amount of training hours for caregivers. Families could be required to start paying for care before knowing what the care plan is, and residents could be evicted without any right to challenge such a decision.

In passing a licensing law last year, the General Assembly recognized that the rapidly growing assisted-living industry needs to be regulated.

Until now, the industry has been subject to the same rules as a wide range of other institutions caring for the elderly and disabled. But the 50,000 people who live in these facilities in Pennsylvania are fragile, needing considerable help in daily living, including bathing, dressing and taking medicine.

Pennsylvania has the opportunity to allay problems in the assisted-living industry before they metastasize. We urge state officials to incorporate the many thoughtful suggestions from consumers, families and their advocates. We need to know that the state is committed to safeguarding its vulnerable citizens.

Alissa Halperin can be contacted via www.phlp.org.