One Year Later
BY RICHARD L. PECK, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF It was a report-writing project of a scope seldom seen in Washington's healthcare policymaking: 37 national organizations coming together to discuss, debate, write recommendations, even register dissent on a host of major issues involving assisted living. At the behest of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, the group assembled in the fall of 2001 and spent the next year and a half in a series of discussions and voting exercises to compile its report. When all was said and done, the Assisted Living Workgroup (ALW) had approved 110 recommendations and voted down 21.
What was unusual about this report was that the group had recorded members' votes on every issue and had published both supporting and dissenting commentaries. Readers of the report would be exposed to in-depth analyses and a wide variety of opinions on such key assisted living issues as consumer disclosure, administrator qualifications, staffing and staff training, and accountability/oversight-even the definition of assisted living itself. (For a review of all this, visit www.alworkgroup.org.) Also interesting, and perhaps inevitable for a group of this size and scope, members eventually broke down into three distinct voting blocs: the consumer-driven free-market advocates (the Assisted Living Federation of America and the National Association for Home Care & Hospice), the regulatory hard-liners (ten organizations representing consumers, state surveyors, ombudsmen, and-interestingly enough-certified nursing assistants), and the majority of 23 middle-of-the-road "common-grounders" (i.e., most of the major long-term provider groups, including AHCA's National Center for Assisted Living).
The ALW presented its report to the committee in April 2003, received the committee's thanks, and disbanded, presumably forever. What had the ALW accomplished? It's a fair question for a one-year-after assessment. Recently, Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management asked some of the key provider "players" in the ALW and one prominent nonparticipating observer for their reflections on this unique (for long-term care) exercise.
Janet Forlini, Senior Vice-President/Director of Public Policy, Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA): I was a staff person for the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging during the ALW's deliberations, so part of my perspective is shaped by that experience. I think the biggest achievement of the ALW was that it brought together organizations, many of which had never been in the same room before. From an "inside the beltway" perspective, it is always significant when you can bring various stakeholders to the same table. And the amount of time these individuals and organizations gave to the effort was quite astounding.
As for frustrations, I think the project was made difficult and the final report lengthy because there were so many sub-issues to cover. Yet it was important that all the issues, in fact, be covered. There was no easy way to place more emphasis on some issues (of which quite a few were core issues), and less on others. All in all, though, this all-inclusive process and end product were very important contributions to the dialogue on assisted living public policy.
Now, one year later, I know that the Special Committee on Aging remains interested in moving forward on assisted living policy. For example, per the request of three members of the committee, the General Accounting Office (GAO) is currently pursuing a study on three important assisted living issues: disclosure, state licensing assistance to providers, and consumer grievance procedures. It is important to note, however, that the thrust of the GAO study is to look at state models, rather than at a potential federal approach to regulation, and it still remains the consensus in Congress that this is the way to go.
What we are hearing from the states reflecting the ALW's work really varies. Some states have developed smaller versions of the ALW, putting together roundtable discussions involving diverse interests reviewing potential regulatory issues. Some states are focused on some pretty specific issues, such as disclosure, and might have already moved beyond the discussions of the ALW. Each state is quite different from the others, depending on a confluence of factors singular to each regulatory environment and available care models.
One of the ALW's recommendations was the development of a Center for Excellence in Assisted Living (CEAL). Several organizations representing providers, consumers, and professionals are already moving forward on creating this center and continuing the dialogue about the best ways to promote it. I think many groups have come to the realization that our biggest strides in public policy will come as a result of partnerships and coalition building among the various stakeholders in assisted living, for which the ALW was quite possibly the prototype.