South Florida deaths propel calls for revision of state nursing home regulations

By Troy Kinsey, Capitol Reporter
Last Updated: Thursday, September 21, 2017, 2:33 PM EDT

Amid intensifying finger-pointing over the deaths of eight seniors confined to a sweltering South Florida nursing home, state lawmakers on Thursday called for a criminal investigation, accompanied by a reversal of years of industry deregulation under Gov. Rick Scott and the legislature's Republican leaders.

  • Reports say facility did not contact AHCA after loss of A/C
  • Gov. Scott: Officials in close contact with ALFs, nursing homes day before
  • Democrats call for restructuring of rules governing state nursing homes

Initial reports indicate the South Florida facility, The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, didn't contact officials at the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) after Hurricane Irma knocked out a transformer powering the nursing home's air conditioning.

In a Thursday letter, three South Florida Democratic legislators called on the governor to direct the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to "open a formal investigation into what appears to be the unnecessary and possibly criminal loss of eight elderly lives."

The Scott administration contends that, because AHCA wasn't informed, there was nothing the agency could have done to intervene.

The day before the deaths, however, the governor told reporters at the State Emergency Operations Center that officials were in close contact with each of Florida's assisted living facilities.

"We're talking to all of our nursing homes, our ALFs, because they're trying to make sure they have the power to take care of their citizens," Scott said Tuesday.

It is now clear communication about the lack of air conditioning at The Rehabilitation Center was, at best, lacking.

"It is one of the most avoidable tragedies in the overall tragedy," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said during a Thursday press conference in Tallahassee.

Putnam, a Republican candidate for governor, called on the Scott administration to conduct an interagency review of the failures that led to the deaths. He stopped short, however, of endorsing a wholesale reversal of the deregulatory actions - ranging from limits on punitive damages in lawsuits against nursing homes to a reduction in the number of caregivers facilities are required to employ - that have occurred during two decades of Republican rule in Tallahassee.

"I think it's too early to speculate on policy shifts to avoid that in the future, but I know that that's going to happen and it should happen," Putnam said.

Democrats and some consumer advocates, though, are demanding a dramatic restructuring of the rules governing the state's nursing homes. Some pointed to Scott's 2011 ouster of Long-term Care Ombudsman Brian Lee - an official widely viewed as having been tough on the industry while standing up for the interests of patients - as the start of a relatively hands-off era of treatment of nursing homes by the Scott administration.

"The state, the regulators, do they know what's going on, is the mandatory reporting that's required going on, what's the punishment?" asked Rep. Sean Shaw (D-Tampa). "If you don't report it, is it severe enough? Certainly, a lot of us in the House, and the Senate, I imagine, are thinking about filing some bills to make sure there's some teeth in the regulations."

There are also indications the nursing home debacle could play a role in next year's U.S. Senate contest, a race Scott is expected to enter. On Thursday, the incumbent, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, secured approval from the Veterans Administration to move seniors in other power outage-afflicted nursing homes to VA hospitals. And in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Nelson criticized the handling of the situation in South Florida.

"Seniors in nursing homes are among the most vulnerable and depend on facility staff for care and protection," Nelson wrote. "Failure to transfer them to a hospital some fifty yards away is unforgivable."