TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The deaths of eight seniors who were in a sweltering Broward County nursing home for days after Hurricane Irma has spurred some lawmakers to demand a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation and to file legislation to require nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to have generators.
Meanwhile, the Broward nursing home, The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, is pushing back after Gov. Rick Scott's administration issued an emergency order blocking admissions to the facility and banned the home from receiving Medicaid payments.
The Hollywood Police Department has launched a criminal investigation into Wednesday's deaths, and state health agencies have also started probes.
The nursing home's administrator, Jorge Carballo, said in a statement Wednesday that the facility never lost power during the storm, but it lost a transformer that powered the air-conditioning system.
In a detailed timeline distributed Friday, representatives of the nursing home contended that the facility's administrators repeatedly reached out to Florida Power & Light and to the Florida Department of Health as the situation grew more dire.
The nursing home started making the calls on Monday and was assured by FPL and state health officials that the facility would be made a priority, according to the timeline. But the assistance never came until after the patients had been evacuated Wednesday morning.
The nursing home also made several calls to 911 after patients began to experience distress as temperatures inside the facility climbed, despite portable cooling units and fans, the timeline said.
Around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, a patient was transported to a hospital just yards from the facility after workers at the nursing home called 911. A second patient was taken to the hospital about an hour later, after another 911 call. At 4:30 a.m., after a third 911 call, a third patient went into cardiac arrest and died at the facility, according to the timeline. A fourth patient died while emergency responders were still at the facility, the timeline said. The nursing home was evacuated about 6:30 a.m., and four other patients died after being taken to the hospital.
“Up to and through the evacuation, protocol was followed,” the release from The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills said.
But late Friday, Scott's office disputed some of the claims made by the nursing home.
“At no time did the facility report that conditions had become dangerous or that the health and safety of their patients was at risk. In fact, on Monday, September 11, Department of Health staff advised this facility to call 911 if they had any reason to believe that their patients were not safe,” Scott's office said in a news release.
The facility reported into a statewide monitoring database 17 times since Sept. 7, according to the governor's office.
“Throughout the course of these reports, the facility never requested any assistance or reported the need for evacuations,” the release said.
In a 5 p.m. report Tuesday, the facility said it had partial power but that heating and cooling systems and a generator were operational and “did not request anything beyond help with FPL,” Scott's office said.
The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Health issued a news release Friday saying that health officials are conducting “frequent and vigorous outreach” to assisted-living facilities and nursing homes every day. The outreach began after conditions became safe following the storm, Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said in an email.
Meanwhile, three Broward County Democratic lawmakers -- Sen. Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale, Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation, and Rep. Shevrin Jones of West Park -- asked Scott to turn the investigation over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The lawmakers want the state to take over the probe because of the myriad entities -- including private businesses and employees, state agencies and local law-enforcement and emergency agencies -- involved in what they called “an avoidable loss of these elderly citizens of our community.”
“Clearly, something horribly, horribly, horribly went wrong at this facility,” Book said in a telephone interview Friday.
Book said she filed legislation Friday morning that would require assisted-living facilities and nursing homes to have generators to power not only lights and medical equipment but also air conditioning “so that these frail individuals are OK,” pointing out that one of the people who died reportedly had a body temperature of 106 degrees.
“That is one thing that should happen, that should occur. What happened at this facility, I believe in my heart of hearts is a multitude of failures that we need to look at,” she said.
Book's proposal mirrors a bill that Florida lawmakers failed to pass following Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The House approved that measure, which was opposed by the nursing home industry, but it died in the Senate.
While a vast majority of the state's assisted living facilities have power, 193 are using generators, 182 have reported being closed, and 177 reported post-storm evacuations, according to a news release from state health officials.
Ten nursing homes have shut down, 34 are using generators, 40 were evacuated after Irma, and 669 have power, the release said.
Brian Lee, who served as the state's nursing-home ombudsman for eight years, questioned why Scott did not revoke the Broward facility's license.
“I've seen places shut down for a whole lot less. I don't understand why they stopped with a moratorium on admissions. How horrific does it have to be?” said Lee, executive director of Texas-based Families for Better Care, a non-profit consumer advocacy organization.
Lee -- who served as ombudsman when Hurricane Wilma and three other storms ravaged the state in 2005 -- said additional oversight of the emergency planning process for nursing homes and assisted facilities is needed. While the facilities are required to file emergency management plans, many of the plans are “boilerplate legalese” that “gets rubber-stamped” by the Agency for Health Care Administration, Lee said.
“No one really looks to see what's in it. They verify the existence of it. It's just bureaucratic paper shuffling,” he said. “That process needs to be tightened up.”
The Florida Department of Health issued the following statement Friday:
"It is 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, 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."