Report: Before deaths, nursing home called Rick Scott's emergency number three times, to no avail

Police surround the Rehabilitation Center in Hollywood Hills, Fla., which had no air conditioning after Hurricane Irma knocked out power. Several patients at the sweltering nursing home died in the storm's aftermath. [John McCall | South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP]
Police surround the Rehabilitation Center in Hollywood Hills, Fla., which had no air conditioning after Hurricane Irma knocked out power. Several patients at the sweltering nursing home died in the storm's aftermath. [John McCall | South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP]
Published Sept. 16, 2017

A Miami TV news station is reporting that the Hollywood nursing home where eight people died after Hurricane Irma knocked out power had called an emergency number to Gov. Rick Scott's office three times without getting help before the residents began dying Wednesday.

CBS4 News Jim Defede told viewers Friday that 36 hours prior to the first death at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, officials at the facility called, on three separate occasions, an emergency number that Scott had provided.

"What happened to those calls to the governor?" Defede said. "Well, we're not sure and we're still trying to find out, but clearly the help did not come."

Defede said after the facility called Florida Power & Light at 3:49 p.m. Sunday after a transformer that powered the air conditioning went out. On Monday, FPL told the facility that it would be at there "first thing in the morning", but later utility representatives said someone would come in the afternoon. No one from the utility came that day.

It was on Monday that the facility first contacted Scott's office with a special number that Scott had provided. Defede said that Scott had a conference call with health care officials the prior week and had told them to call this phone number if they had any trouble as they weathered the storm.

"At 5:34 p.m. (the Rehabilitation Center) called the governor and wasn't able to get a response," Defede said.

On Tuesday, FPL didn't come to the center again. The facility called Scott's emergency number two more times, Defede said, as well as an emergency number in Tallahassee, and was repeatedly told that they were going to get help.

"But time and time again, no one came," Defede said.

Early Wednesday morning is when the residents of the facility started dying.

An FPL statement in response to Defede's report said that the facility was supposed to have an operational generator.

"While this nursing home was given a level of priority, in working with (Broward) county officials, other critical facilities, such as hospitals and 911 centers, were identified as higher priorities," the statement said.

Defede said that was almost verbatim the statement the utility had offered on Wednesday.

"So it begs the question, what makes something a high priority?" Defede said. "At the time this incident occurred, you have to remember when the first patients were dying, there were 150 nursing homes across the state that did not have power. And as of earlier today, I think the number was still in the 30s that still don't have power in Florida.

Scott's office issued a statement at 5:16 p.m. Friday saying that "Every call made to the governor from facility management was referred to the Agency for Health Care Adminstration and the Florida Department of Health and quickly returned."

Not so, according to Defede.

In the days when Irma made its way to Florida, Scott held a series of conference calls with emergency officials.

"With more than 100 people on the line, (Scott) would say, 'Look, we're going to get through this, we're going to get through this together, if any of you have an issue and you need to expedite it, call this number," Defede said. "(Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills) called this number on three different occasions, they would get a call back from someone at the Emergency Operation Center who would say, 'Okay, we've heard you concern, we're on it, we'll take care of it,' but nothing happened."

Defede said officials at the nursing home said when they called the number, it went to a voice mail. When Defede called it Friday, he said it went straight to voice mail.

In a statement released after 6 p.m. Friday, the Florida Department of Health said it was "100 percent the responsibility of health care professionals to preserve life by acting in the best interest of the health and well-being of their patients. Let's be clear — this facility is located across the street from one of Florida's largest hospitals (Memorial Regional Hospital), which never lost power and had fully operating facilities. The tragic and senseless loss at Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center is the subject of a criminal homicide investigation by law enforcement."

On Friday, a Miami law firm filed a complaint against the Hollywood facility on behalf of the family of Albertina Vega, a 99-year-old patient who was one of the eight people who died. The complaint seeks to preserve all video and photos taken in the facility on Sept. 8, the day before the effects of Irma could be felt, to Wednesday. The complaint also seeks to protect all records pertaining to air conditioning equipment, hurricane preparation and procedures to monitor patients.

The Hollywood Police Department has opened a criminal investigation into the deaths. The Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Children & Families have begun their own investigations.

Defede's report spurred a swift response from Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is running for governor.

"Today's report (Scott) and his office gave out a special priority phone line — then failed to act when they received distress calls — are highly alarming," the campaign statement said. "I am calling for a full independent investigation into this matter. The investigators must have full access to all public records and transcripts of communications, meetings, and conference calls between the Governor, his Office, and healthcare facilities in preparing for Hurricane Irma."

The Miami Herald contributed to this story.