Editorial: Florida should restore online access to nursing home inspections

SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Florida Capitol looking east, Tallahassee.  FOR FILE.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Florida Capitol looking east, Tallahassee. FOR FILE.

In a state with the nation’s highest portion of residents over 65 years old and more than 80,000 nursing home beds, public records about those facilities should be as accessible as possible. Yet once again, Florida is turning back the clock to the dark ages. A state agency has removed from its website records of all nursing home inspections, a terrible disservice that makes it even harder on families choosing a nursing home for aging relatives or monitoring the performance of nursing homes taking care of their loved ones.

For years, the state Agency for Health Care Administration posted on its website links to inspections of nursing homes and hospitals. There were very few redactions, and the reports were easy to access. One of the key benefits of the digital age is that public records that used to require a trip to city hall or the county courthouse — or a letter by mail to Tallahassee — are readily available from anywhere at no cost.

Yet AHCA has turned back the clock. The Miami Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller and Caitlin Ostroff report that the agency has removed links to those nursing home inspections from its website. The documents can still be requested from the state, but it isn’t easy to navigate the bureaucracy, know how to ask for specific records, wait for copies and potentially pay a fee for copies. Is the state agency working to hide the sins of the institutions it regulates, or is it working for the public?

This fits a disturbing pattern for this agency. The Herald previously reported that Gov. Rick Scott’s administration spent $22,000 on software that heavily redacts nursing home inspection reports, and those same reports are available without the redactions from the federal government. The smarter approach would be to provide more sunshine instead of less, particularly after 13 senior citizens who lived at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died in September following Hurricane Irma when the facility’s cooling system failed. Instead, AHCA removed all links to nursing home inspections from its website after that horrible episode.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the culture of the Scott administration, which shows less respect for openness and public records than any administration in decades. In the aftermath of Irma, Scott defended the state’s actions following the nursing home deaths. But voicemail messages from nursing home officials to Scott’s cellphone before the deaths occurred were deleted, violating at least the spirit of the state’s public records laws. During and after the hurricane, reporters were not provided even routine information from the state’s emergency operations center in a timely manner and could not listen to storm briefings. None of this is in the public interest.

Yet the hurricane situation and the removal of nursing home inspections from a state website are just the latest insult to Floridians who have a long record of favoring open government. In June, Scott signed into law a bill that automatically will seal millions of criminal history records for anyone whose charges are dropped or who is found not guilty at trial. In 2015, Scott agreed to spend $700,000 in public money to settle public records lawsuits alleging he and his staff created email accounts to shield their communications from public records laws and withheld the documents. That marked the first time in state history that a sitting governor and attorney general were successfully sued for violations of Florida’s public records laws.

Fortunately, Florida voters will elect a new governor next year. The candidates should each recommit to government-in-the-sunshine — — and they can start by pledging to make it easy again to read nursing home inspections on the state website.