What does “assisted living” mean in Pennsylvania now?

It’s getting harder for consumers to know.

When I have visited assisted living facilities in the past year, I have been struck by the wide variation in the services offered. One place may offer a narrow range of services and expect its residents to be nearly independent, while another may keep residents who require help with most activities of daily living.

New regulations that took effect in the state in January appeared, at first, to offer a solution. Licensed “assisted living” facilities would have to offer certain core services. Facilities would also have to provide, or arrange for, certain “supplemental health care services” which would be “packaged, contracted and priced separately from the resident agreement.” Thus, consumers could compare facilities and prices more transparently.

A licensed facility would also have to meet certain requirements in its physical site, staffing, and training. So if you moved into a licensed assisted living facility, you would generally know what you were going to get.

But the regulations would only apply to a facility that chose to use the term “assisted living” in its name or written materials.

Regulators expected hundreds of facilities to apply but few have, according to a news report. Gary Rotstein of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported that state officials predicted there would be at least 150 assisted living residences licensed by now, but there are only 10 (with only one in Western Pennsylvania). Since facilities fall under the new regulations only if they describe themselves to consumers using the term “assisted living,” it seems many are choosing to avoid that term and thereby escape the regulatory requirements, the article said.

These developments are a sure-fire recipe for confusion.

Consumers know the well-branded term “assisted living” as a place where a person can receive help with activities of daily living in a home-like setting, instead of going to a nursing home. But where can a person find that service? The 10 licensed facilities cannot possibly serve the demand in Pennsylvania. People will be unsure if what used to be called the XYZ Assisted Living Residence is providing the same service now that it’s called the XYZ Personal Care Residence. Terms like “personal care” are so vague that many consumers may not know what services the facility offers.

When the regulations went into effect in January, it was hoped they would give meaning to the term “assisted living” and help consumers find the services they need. Now it appears the use of that term may become increasingly rare and consumers will be left to wonder what services are offered at which facilities, and where they can find the right mix of help they need.

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