Sunday, June 24, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Florida foolishly makes it harder to see nursing home inspections

Florida’s once vaunted reputation as the Sunshine State, a leader in open government, providing the citizenry broad, unfettered access to public meetings and records, is becoming increasingly dreary and overcast with a better than average chance of tyranny.

There are few crises a family faces that are more gut-wrenching than making the painful decision to place a loved one in a nursing home. And now the state of Florida has made that already difficult prospect even more daunting — and dangerous.

In recent weeks Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration has been busily scrubbing its website to remove damaging information about nursing homes that was once immediately accessible to the public.

The Miami Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller and Caitlin Ostroff reported that AHCA, without prior notice, wiped its website clean of all links to documents related to nursing home inspections and has heavily redacted other documents about elder facilities. It has redacted words such as "room," "CPR," "bruises" and "pain." You would think a family considering placing a loved one in a nursing home or assisted living environment would want to know about such details.

Documents related to suspect nursing and assisted living operations are still available, the Herald noted, but now you have to specifically ask AHCA for them. And consumers also need to know whom to ask for the records. What was once readily available on AHCA’s website for free may now require Floridians to pay for public documents and wait longer to receive them.

Do you get the sneaking suspicion AHCA is trying to protect powerful nursing home and hospital interests by covering up their misdeeds?

There is certainly plenty to cover up. The Herald noted one case of an elderly woman who jumped to her death at a Hialeah Gardens nursing home. An investigation revealed she had not been treated by her psychiatrist for weeks.

And the investigation into the Hurricane Irma-related deaths of 13 elders at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, who died after the facility’s cooling system failed, has now been heavily redacted by AHCA.

The very state agency that is supposed to be responsible for "health care administration" told the reporters it was merely attempting to protect the medical privacy of seniors by making the records almost as hard to get as the nuclear codes.

That is simply sheer … well, piffle will have to do.

The names of residents who are abused or die at the hands of unscrupulous nursing home and elder care facilities always have been redacted, as they should be. What matters in terms of transparency and accountability is the information surrounding their care, or lack thereof, in order to expose the dark side of Florida’s treatment of its most vulnerable citizens.

And now, as is so often the case in Tallahassee, AHCA has become a willing co-conspirator to shield from public scrutiny the very industry it is supposed to be regulating.

The AHCA assault on Florida’s Sunshine Law is merely the latest in a long line of efforts by Tallahassee to blunt public access to public records based on the flimsy canard of protecting privacy.

But the only real "privacy" being protected here is by a state taxpayer-funded agency to shield private business interests from having the public know they are abusing and in some cases killing sick old people.

How is a family going to know that what seems to be a lovely, beautifully appointed nursing home with perfectly manicured grounds is really a house of horrors?

Families have a right, the public has a right, to know if a nursing home or assisted living facility has a history of abuse. How many residents have died while in a elder operation’s care? And how did they die?

How many fines has the nursing home paid? How many of the medical staff have been officially disciplined? And why?

It’s not AHCA’s role to serve as an extension of politically connected nursing home operators by making information about their operations more difficult for the public to access.

A flack for AHCA bragged how the agency was a pillar of openness, citing some cockamamie award AHCA had received for being a leader in sharing information. But that highfalutin, dust-covered plaque was handed out before AHCA decided to turn the lights off regarding Internet access to nursing home inspections.

Today, AHCA would be a prime candidate for the coveted Seniors Censorship trophy.

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