Hollywood Hills tragedy overhangs Senate committee talk on nursing home rules - Florida Politics

Hollywood Hills tragedy overhangs Senate committee talk on nursing home rules

Florida’s 683 licensed nursing homes and 3,109 assisted living facilities have just a few weeks to meet Gov. Rick Scott’s rule to install generators, but there are very few generators available and most won’t make it, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services heard on Wednesday.

The first hearing of that committee to deal with nursing homes’ emergency plan safety in the wake of the Hollywood Hills tragedy, in which 14 elderly residents appeared to have baked to death because the Hurricane Irma power outage pushed up indoor temperatures, dealt more with state programs and procedures than with that tragedy, but it overhung almost everything discussed.

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And the need for Scott’s ordered rule, signed Sept. 16, five days after Hurricane Irma shut down power for most of the state and three days after deaths were revealed at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, included the order for backup power for cooling. Industry representatives said they support the concept, but argued that most nursing homes and assisted living facilities will struggle with the costs, and with the availability of generators to meet the 60-day deadline for installation.

There was some talk of the state assisting with money, but the committee mostly listened to testimony, and did not state any directions. Chairwoman Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, said she would schedule a legislative workshop later.

Molly McKinstry, deputy secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration said her agency and other state agencies were in constant contact before, during and after Hurricane Irma with all the state’s nursing homes. The state is being sued over the Hollywood Hills horror, and so she said she could not talk in any specifics about it, though she called it an isolated incident among the hundreds of such facilities statewide.

Still, McKinstry acknowledged that many nursing homes and assisted living facilities lost power and quite a few visited by state officials had interior temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s, despite meeting all the current state requirements. She said loss of power and heating issues were a “prevalent” problem.

Scott’s order calls for nursing homes to have backup power and related facilities to be able to maintain an interior temperature of 80 degrees or cooler for 96 hours.

McKinstry nonetheless was grilled by state Sen. Kevin Rader, a Boca Raton Democrat, when she was unable to convince him that she had data indicating how prevelant the power and heating issues appeared to be in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Data she provided showed about a quarter to a third lost power, including those that were evacuated. But under questioning she conceded the data was a snapshot of the moments the facilities reported their situations, and did not reflect whether they had lost power for any period up until then. She pledged she would get better data.

State Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Lady Lake Republican, called the Hollywood Hills situation “outrageous” yet appeared to want to downplay it. He blamed the media for dramatizing it, and openly questioning whether all 14 deaths there attributed to Hurricane Irma were really storm-related, or whether some were seniors who just died naturally during that period of time and got included in reports that made things look much worse.

McKinstry said two of the deaths occurred at the nursing home, while the other 12 were residents who died in the hospital after they were transported the morning the first two deaths were discovered, Sept. 13.

“We keep getting new deaths attributed to the storm, because they came from the nursing home, when in fact, look at the population you’re dealing with: they’re 90-somethings,” Baxley said. “Some of these deaths would have naturally occurred, storm or no storm. So to automatically pushing these over to the medical examiner as part of this case that they’re are studying, I think could be a bit unfair on the other side of the equation

“There need to be some evaluation of are these natural deaths or storm deaths, because, that makes a difference in policy, what kind of policy we set. I think we can face the reality that some of these are naturally occurring deaths,” Baxley said. “The more the time clicks off, the more of them there will be, until eventually everyone who was in that nursing home will die. OK? We don’t need to attribute all those to the storm, or we’re in bad policy.”

He called for McKinstry to come back with an investigative report, offering more detail, as soon as litigation and a pending criminal case might allow.

“Part of the problem is the outrageousness of this has come out in drips and there’s a lot of misinformation and confusion about pieces of information that leak out, and a lot of drama of course with media coverage and dramatization of what did happen. I think when things calm down we ought to have a report,” Baxley said. “That’s the only way we’re going to modify this policy.”

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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