By Jim Bleyer
The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills is in the fight of its operational life in the wake of 12 resident deaths after Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Its fate rests in the hands of an administrative law judge who must decide if the facility’s license and Medicaid agreement should be terminated, based on the State’s charge that the facility allowed dangerously high temperatures to develop without evacuating residents after air conditioning power was lost.
Case records reflect conflicting evidentiary presentations of temperatures in the facility, resident conditions, causes of death and staff efforts and concern. The judge must sift through that evidence and make credibility determinations on her way to her recommended ruling, no small task.
But one factual issue the judge does not have to resolve – because it was not disputed during the hearing – is that all heat related deaths could have been prevented by Rick Scott with a simple call to Florida Power and Light.
Scott promised Florida nursing homes he would be a problem-solving resource in pre-hurricane preparedness calls and went so far as to give facilities his personal cell phone number to call if they experienced problems. But, when executive action was needed, Scott ignored his promise and abandoned Hollywood Hills and its residents.
Power to the facility’s air conditioning system failed on the afternoon of Sunday, September 10th, because of a blown fuse on a power pole. Restoring power simply required the fuse to be re-attached, repair work that could be completed in less than 45 minutes by FPL workers.
Case records indicate that, in the 2 ½ days after the AC system lost power, Hollywood Hills staff made numerous calls to FPL and Scott’s agencies – the State Emergency Management Center and the Agency for Health Care Administration – notifying them of the “emergency condition” and the repair work needed. FPL promised to attend to the emergency situation but never showed up.
Five times on Monday the 11th, Scott’s Emergency Management Center assured facility representatives that their request had been escalated, but nothing happened. Calls to those same contacts were repeated on Tuesday the 12th to no avail.
But, of most concern, the rehab center’s staff called Scott’s cell phone at least four separate times and left voicemail messages asking Scott to help as he had assured them he would. No return call was made to the facility.
Nothing was done to reflect that the repair request had been escalated as the Emergency Center promised, or that Scott even considered directing FPL to perform the 45-minute repair job.
Scott contends he forwarded the facility’s request to his Emergency Management Center because he believed that constituted effective action. He further stated he was unaware of any urgent nature of the request because the facility never informed him of that fact on its messages.
The suggestion, of course, was that Scott would have done more had he only known. Conveniently, Scott deleted all five of the messages so no one could confirm their content.
In the early morning hours of Wednesday the 13th, Residents began dying.
In a court deposition, Wes Maul, who became Director of the Division of Emergency Management three weeks after Irma struck, was revealing about the lack of leadership from both his agency and the governor. Maul served as chief of staff to DEM Director Brian Koons when the disaster struck.
Scott’s fingerpointing included accusing the nursing home of minimizing a critical situation and delaying a mass evacuation.
Evacuation is the last resort for nursing homes and that measure could easily have been avoided if Scott hadn’t failed in his promise to protect seniors.
A 2012 study about nursing home evacuations during hurricanes, five years before Irma, reveals the grave consequences suffered by the most vulnerable residents and flaws within government guidelines for the relocations.
A 218% increase in the mortality of residents with severe dementia is cited in a three-year study of 21,255 residents living in nursing homes along the Gulf Coast within 30 days of an evacuation, and a 158% increase in deaths within 90 days.
“We don’t know why these deaths are occurring after evacuations,” said Lisa Brown, a lead author of the dementia study and a professor of aging studies at the University of South Florida-Tampa. “This is the first report to quantify the deaths. It tells us we need to think through evacuations.”
Officials at the Hollywood Hills facility were cognizant of the evacuation perils and took Scott at his word. One call by the governor to FPL. A 45-minute re-installation of a fuse. Twelve residents spared from death. The dots are easy to connect.
Scott’s rationalization of his handling of the calls is classic political sleight-of-hand. The facility remains steadfast that he was informed of its urgent need in each and every voicemail message it left. Scott had every reason to know it was a crisis situation.
So what action did the buckpassing governor take in the aftermath of the fiasco he caused? The Agency for Health Care Administration proposed a civil fine, denial of payment of Medicare/Medicaid for new admissions, and termination of the Medicare Agreement against the Hollywood Hills facility.
That’s tantamount to a shutdown.
Scott’s attempt to build political capital from a deadly disaster of his own making took precedence over the facility’s seniors that survived his negligence and residents-to-be in a state where there is a nursing home shortage.
Virtually every resident in a nursing home is considered by the Agency for Health Care Administration to be a vulnerable adult. No logical, compassionate state executive could believe that a facility filled with vulnerable adults that had gone without air conditioning for over two days in September is not in a state of emergency.
Moreover, Scott does not dispute that he received at least four phone calls the afternoon before residents began dying. Who gets four phone calls from anyone, let alone nursing homes who have been told to call the number in emergency situations, and does not think the caller has an urgent issue to address?
Remember that when you see Scott’s political ads touting his “leadership” during Irma and his concern for seniors in this campaign season. It is enough to make you want to revoke his license.
Editor’s Note: Rick Scott’s cell phone number one year ago during Irma was 239-451-0450. Don’t call it and say you have an emergency.