FRANKFORT — Six months after a brain-injured Lebanon man disappeared from a Falmouth personal care home and died, a panel of lawmakers approved a bill Wednesday aimed at preventing similar deaths.
Larry Lee's family mounted an extensive search to find the 32-year-old man with a history of mental illness, but it was four weeks after his August disappearance before Lee's body was found on the banks of the Licking River not far from Falmouth Nursing Home in Pendleton County.
The personal care home where he was placed by the state did not have adequate services for Lee, his family said.
Under a proposal that passed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday, potential residents would be screened by a medical professional to determine whether a personal care home — which does not provide skilled nursing care or intensive therapy — is an appropriate placement.
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Republican Sen. Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon, who helped search for Lee, said he thought Senate Bill 115 might have saved Lee's life if it had been in effect at the time.
"He should have not been in a personal care home," Higdon told the committee. "He didn't get the care that he needed."
There are about 3,000 people in 82 free-standing personal care homes across Kentucky. Personal care homes provide long-term care for people who do not need full-time nursing care but need some assistance. Many of those served by such homes are mentally ill or mentally disabled.
Personal care homes receive a limited amount of money — about $60 a day — to provide care to people with complex problems, Higdon said.
"There are a lot of good personal care homes," said Higdon, the sponsor of the bill.
But there are a lot of personal care homes that are not equipped to deal with people who have complex psychiatric problems, he said.
The bill now goes to the full Senate, where it is expected to pass. A similar measure has been filed in the House.
Larry Lee is not the first person to walk away from a personal care home and die. In 2007, Larry Bruce Huff, 64, who had schizophrenia and a history of alcoholism, walked away from Golden Years Rest Home in Letcher County and froze to death.
Golden Years ultimately was shut down by the Attorney General Jack Conway's office and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services last year because of a host of criminal charges against staff there and other problems. A former administrator at Golden Years later pleaded guilty to charges that he stole $300,000 from disabled residents there.
On Feb. 4, a personal care home in Dry Ridge apparently shut down after it was issued a Type A citation — the state's most serious — after residents at the home said they had to sleep bundled in winter clothes because it was so cold in the home.
According to the citation issued Jan. 10, Dry Ridge Personal Care Home failed to keep the temperature at 72 degrees Fahrenheit in areas occupied by residents. Five out of five residents observed in a day room were wearing winter coats, and three of them were wearing hats, too, the citation said.
One resident described having to sleep in the television room — the warmest part of the building — for two nights wearing a winter coat, sweat suit and three pairs of socks.
The home voluntarily closed when the last of 34 residents moved to other facilities Feb. 4, said Beth Fisher, a spokeswoman for the cabinet.
The facility was owned by Ronald Bennett, according to state records. Bennett did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Personal care homes are often providers of last resort, said Marsha Hockensmith, director of Kentucky Protection and Advocacy, a government agency that advocates for the mentally disabled.
The problems with personal care homes "speak to the overall lack of supports and services for persons with mental illness," she said.
At least two of the individuals who had been living at Dry Ridge moved in with family members, and the majority moved to other personal care homes across the state, Hockensmith said.
She said the majority of individuals who moved to other personal care homes would benefit instead from receiving services in the community, including housing, case management, community treatment, supported employment and peer support.
Gov. Steve Beshear, in his proposed two-year budget, has requested $6 million to fund residential, community-based services for 400 people with severe mental illness. There currently is no state-sponsored intensive, community-based treatment for people with severe mental illness.
It's not clear whether the legislature will include the funding proposal in its final budget, which must be approved by April 15. Some legislators have questioned whether it is appropriate to add new programs when spending is being cut on many critical services in state government.