The horrific story of elderly Floridians dying from the heat in a Broward County nursing home after surviving Hurricane Irma grows more outrageous. Even as a ninth death has been reported, the nursing home blames the state and has filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Rick Scott's move to prevent it from accepting new patients or Medicaid payments. It's inconceivable that this tragedy already has devolved into finger-pointing, and it will test the resolve of state government to continue to stand up for the state's most vulnerable seniors against a powerful industry that routinely protects its bottom line.
There is no rational explanation for residents at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills dying after being without air conditioning following Irma — and with the full-service Memorial Regional Hospital right across the street. The residents were evacuated the morning of Sept. 13 hours after the first resident was taken to the hospital. A criminal investigation is under way, and the state suspended the nursing home's license to operate Wednesday. There should be a call to action in the state with the highest portion of residents who are 65 years old or older.
Yet just a week after this sickening loss of life, Scott is getting attacked by this very same nursing home. The industry is raising concerns about implementing the governor's emergency rule that would take effect in less than 60 days and require the state's 685 nursing homes and 3,109 assisted living facilities to have a generator and fuel to keep their facilities reasonably cool for at least four days following a power outage. While it's reasonable to discuss logistics, no Floridian should fear dying in the heat in one of these facilities because the electricity goes out and there is no air conditioning following a hurricane.
The Broward nursing home defends the indefensible by pointing to calls it made Sept. 12 to the governor, which were referred to appropriate state agencies. But the detailed time line released by Scott's office shows the nursing home reported no issues after Irma made landfall Sept. 10 even though that is the day its air conditioning system lost power. The problem was noted the following day by the nursing home administrator in a call to the state, but the state says there was no indication that conditions had become dangerous or patients were at risk. The evacuations occurred the morning of Sept. 13 after nursing home patients began arriving at the hospital.
The welfare of seniors in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other homes after power is lost following a storm is not an isolated concern. Officials throughout Tampa Bay rechecked facilities following the news of the deaths in Broward. Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard says some of those facilities in Pinellas were not prepared for power outages, and some of their residents were taken by EMS to shelters. Hillsborough County commissioners discussed the issue Wednesday, with Sandra Murman urging Scott to remain firm in ensuring those homes have power after a storm and Stacy White suggesting the county explore whether it can require generators at assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Local officials should remain vigilant, but ultimately this is a public health and safety issue for the state.
Florida can have zero tolerance for allowing nursing homes and other facilities to keep vulnerable seniors in sweltering, dangerous conditions when the power goes out. The governor's aggressiveness in response to the Broward tragedy reflects the appropriate sense of urgency, and he and state lawmakers should not back down in requiring better.