JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed legislation Wednesday that would have given facilities for the elderly and disabled more time to comply with a sprinkler system mandate enacted after a fatal 2006 fire at a southwest Missouri group home for the mentally ill and disabled.
Ten residents and one employee died in the fire at the Anderson Guest House, which had no sprinkler system and no heat sensors in the attic where the blaze began. A Missouri law passed in response to the fire required all long-term care facilities with more than 20 residents to install sprinkler systems by the end of 2012.
The Republican-controlled Missouri General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill earlier this year that would have pushed back that deadline to the end of 2014. Lawmakers and some groups representing assisted living centers cited the fact that Missouri had failed to fund a low-interest loan program that was to have eased the financial burden of installing the sprinklers.
Nixon, a Democrat, said the bill's original five-year deadline provided plenty of time for facilities to make the potentially life-saving improvements.
"Yet here we are, several years later, with only incremental progress made toward having sprinkler systems in every group home," Nixon said. "Any further delay puts lives unnecessarily at risk, and that is unacceptable."
Although the Missouri sprinkler mandate covers all long-term care facilities, it primarily affects residential care and assisted living centers because nursing homes already face a separate federal requirement to install sprinkler systems by August 2013.
According to the state health department, just 28 of Missouri's 530 intermediate and skilled care nursing facilities do not yet have full sprinkler systems.
Of Missouri's 606 assisted living and residential care facilities, 257 are exempt from the sprinkler requirement because they have 20 or fewer beds, and 96 facilities subject to the mandate have not yet installed sprinkler systems, the department said.
Tim Blattel said an assisted living center he owns in O'Fallon is among those not yet fully equipped with sprinklers. Since the 2007 law passed, Blattel said he has spent more than $200,000 to install sprinklers throughout much of his 149-bed facility, but he said it will cost him an additional $47,000 to expand those sprinklers to a few remaining rooms.
Blattel, the president of the Missouri Assisted Living Association, said he plans to finish the sprinkler installation. But he said many other owners — particularly of smaller facilities that already spent money to comply with a 2007 mandate to improve their fire alarms — had been waiting for the legislature to appropriate money to the low-interest loan program run by the state treasurer.
"It's not that the facilities or providers are against the sprinklers; we all realize it will enhance and make things better," Blattel said. "We would like for the governor to work with us to have those loans in place that they promised."
LeadingAge Missouri, an organization that represents primarily nonprofit senior care providers, also criticized Nixon for vetoing the bill while not doing more to make loans available.
"The recourse (for facilities) is either come up with the cost to do it in the next year, close your building, or de-license and become an independent living center where there's no requirements," LeadingAge CEO Denise Clemonds said.
The veto highlighted the divisions that sometimes exist at the Capitol among nursing home chains and other residential care providers. The Missouri Health Care Association, whose members include primarily skilled nursing care facilities, praised Nixon's veto as a victory for seniors.
"Extending the deadline for those who have not complied and now seek to remove this protection is not safe, smart or fair to anyone," executive director and former state senator Jon Dolan said.
The Anderson Guest House never reopened after the 2006 fire, and several other facilities also owned by Robert and Laverne DuPont and their Joplin River of Life Ministries subsequently shut down. Robert DuPont was sentenced in April to five years in prison without parole and Laverne DuPont was sentenced to five years probation for federal health care fraud convictions related to their group home. In January, the DuPonts were found liable for the fire in a civil lawsuit brought by victims and their families, which could lead to the payment of $6.4 million in damages.
Associated Press writer Chris Blank contributed to this report.