After Hollywood nursing home horror, legislators want new laws

On Thursday, Janice Connelly of Hollywood, sets up a makeshift memorial in memory of the senior citizens who died in the heat at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. [Carline Jean  | South Florida Sun-Sentinel]
On Thursday, Janice Connelly of Hollywood, sets up a makeshift memorial in memory of the senior citizens who died in the heat at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. [Carline Jean | South Florida Sun-Sentinel]
Published Sep. 17, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — After a week in which the recovery from Hurricane Irma was more deadly for Florida's elderly than the storm, a handful of South Florida legislators drafted bills that would require nursing and retirement homes to maintain generators to cool their facilities during power outages.

The legislation is meant to prevent the kind of tragedy that occurred Wednesday when eight frail, elderly people died in a Hollywood, Fla., nursing home-turned-hothouse after a temporary cooling system failed.

The proposals emerged a day after the Times/Herald reported that a similar effort before the 2006 Legislature was derailed when the long-term care industry balked at the price tag of paying for generators — and lawmakers objected to subsidizing them.

And they came Friday as state officials reported that 40 nursing homes and 177 assisted living facilities had evacuated thousands of residents this week — after the storm left.

The primary reason: lack of power and sweltering temperatures made conditions unsafe.

Florida emergency operators would not say how many people were evacuated from the elder care homes this week, or how many of the evacuations occurred after the deaths in Broward, but industry representatives blamed the exodus on the loss of electricity.

"Their residents are susceptible to heat stroke and other issues exacerbated by the heat,'' said Shaddrick Haston, CEO of the Florida Assisted Living Association, which represents the state's 3,100 assisted living facilities. "They're looking for places that may be able to provide some cool."

Haston said Gov. Rick Scott was aware of the difficult decision facing many operators, who chose to have their residents shelter in place only to face days without power.

Scott fielded desperate calls from members of Haston's association — seeking generators and assistance evacuating before the storm, and pleading for higher priority treatment from local utilities after it passed, he said.

In daily conference calls with assisted living facilities operators, nursing homes and hospital executives, Scott gave out his personal cellphone number, urging people to call with problems or concerns. Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Justin Senior, Florida Surgeon General Celeste Philip and others in the administration also shared cellphone numbers, Haston said.

Calls to Scott and others were routed to AHCA or the Department of Health "and quickly returned," said Scott spokesman John Tupps. He denied allegations Friday that the governor had failed to properly alert health administrators after receiving three calls from the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.

Haston said the state's emergency managers worked throughout the week with members of his association, and officials at nursing homes to coordinate the movement of portable generators and other cooling equipment from facilities that had electricity restored to those without it.

The goal was to avoid uprooting frail residents to other facilities, often causing steep health declines and what the industry calls "transfer trauma," he said. "You do more harm than good sometimes."

But, Haston acknowledged, those resources didn't come in time to keep some elders from being evacuated or, in some cases, hospitalized.

"We've seen the good, the bad — and we've seen the ugly," he said.

The tragedy in Broward prompted Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point; Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation; and Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, to call for a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation.

Said Book: "We just had a mass casualty event. Eight individuals lost their lives. One of those was a woman who got to be 99 years old. I know we can do better. We have to do better."

They also want to change the law for thousands of people still living in limbo as they wait for power to return at their evacuated homes.

One bill, filed Friday afternoon by Book, would require nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have "an emergency power source" to run air conditioners, in addition to what the law already requires: one that powers lifesaving equipment like fire alarms and nursing call buttons.

The bill would require the state AHC to oversee the effort and ensure compliance.

The 2006 legislation would have done what Book seeks to do: require the industry to install and maintain generators or other power sources, and pay for them themselves.

What emerged was a modest compromise bill, sponsored in the House of Representatives by then-Rep. Dan Gelber, that would have created a pilot program in which some nursing homes would have been partially reimbursed, so long as they agreed to accept evacuees from other homes.

Among nursing homes, 669 had power late Friday, 34 were using generators, 10 were "closed" and 40 reported post-storm evacuations, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Among assisted living facilities, 1,978 were with power, 182 reported being "closed," 193 were using generators and 177 reported evacuating residents after the storm.

"The challenge for nursing homes isn't getting through the storm; it's after the storm," said Marty Goetz, CEO of River Garden Senior Services, a Gold Star nursing home in Jacksonville that never lost power.

Because of the trauma and stress transferring patients has on their health, evacuating is the last resort for most nursing homes, he said.

The industry, however, isn't convinced the generators will solve all their problems. The Hollywood home had a generator.

"We have old, sick, frail, vulnerable people here," Goetz said. "It really does require a different level of response by the electric companies and that needs to come from the state."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.