Within the chaos left by Hurricane Irma stands a particularly conspicuous nursing home in Hollywood, Florida, from which 115 patients have been evacuated and 8 are now reported dead.
According to local emergency services, “a number of critical patients” are being treated for dehydration, respiratory distress, and heat stress after the hurricane supposedly shut off the facility’s air conditioning system. However, 3 people died in the nursing home while 3 others were pronounced dead when taken to a local hospital. The two additional deaths are still under investigation.
“We’re certainly all very disappointed that something like this could’ve taken place,” said Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy. “Unfortunately, emergency services were called obviously too late.”
Firefighters are also evacuating patients from a nearby behavioral health facility, and police are taking precautions to check the remaining 42 Hollywood nursing homes and assisted living centers. Elsewhere in Florida, about 150 of almost 700 nursing facilities are still without power. Add this to the fact that nursing homes are notoriously lax in solving life-saving problems, and something indicates that the authorities won’t like what they find.
Criminal Proceedings Underway in Wake of Inexplicable Oversight
The loss of air conditioning seems to be responsible for the deaths at first glance, but city officials suggest the cause(s) are not without doubts.
“We are conducting a criminal investigation [and] not ruling anything out at this time,” Hollywood police chief Tomas Sanchez said at a press conference, while Florida Governor Rick Scott assured the public he will “aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place.”
Scott added: “Although the details of these reported deaths are still under investigation, this situation is unfathomable. Every facility that is charged with caring for patients must take every action and precaution to keep their patients safe – especially patients that are in poor health.”
Nobody, of course, has control over what happens in a natural disaster’s path. But why didn’t the power outage redouble the facility’s efforts to attend to its residents? Where were the nursing staff when frail patients lay alone in their beds, in acute danger from the sweltering 90-degree heat? Why did nobody dial 911, as the state advised healthcare providers to do if the hurricane put patients at risk?
“If [Florida health officials] find that this facility was not meeting the state’s high standards of care, they will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” said Scott.
Florida’s Healthcare Loopholes Tested Once Again
Needless to say, pointing the incident to criminal misconduct raises questions about the facility’s readiness to prioritize residents’ lives in an emergency. And judging by this facility’s long history of safety violations – including 2 failures to follow generator regulations in 2014 and 2016 – investigators may expect to unearth similar issues.
“What we’ve seen is something extremely tragic that points to the need to having plans in advance when it comes to emergency preparation,” said Robert Gould, chief communications officer of the nursing home’s utility Florida Power and Light, which confirmed that certain parts of the facility did have power. “I would be remiss if I didn’t say our deepest sympathies go out to the families of those lost their lives.”
This nursing home would not be alone in its discrepancies. Earlier this week, another assisted care facility for patients with dementia lost power for 3 days and had done enough, according to Florida healthcare regulation, by simply turning on a few small fans. Yet if the power hadn’t returned, this, too, could have amounted to a medical emergency.
What’s Stopping Facilities from Fulfilling Their Duty of Care?
Power outages aside, Florida’s healthcare system also came under fire just last month, when more than 13,000 special needs children were denied critical insurance benefits. Clearly, Scott’s self-proclaimed “high standards of care” do not appear to prioritize 2 of society’s most vulnerable groups: the young and the old.
For people aged 65 and older, sudden changes in temperature are life-threatening. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests seniors are more likely than the younger generation to have chronic conditions or medications that significantly impact their ability to regulate body temperature, leaving the brain and vital organs susceptible to fatal damage.
As so-called experts in elder care, the Hollywood nursing facility should have known this. But like many other nursing homes that prefer to maximize profits rather than provide quality care, the facility’s administrators and caregivers neglected the situation. Whether the neglect was deliberate or the nursing home lacked resources to respond to this emergency is irrelevant – either, as staff would have been aware, can result in patient injury or death.
Latest Congressional Debate Further Threatens Health Outcomes
Unfortunately, the Florida nursing home deaths may be a taste of more to come in the following months. The news of these deaths circulated only hours before President Donald Trump praised Republicans for their latest effort to repeal America’s “disastrous Obamacare burden.” Having apparently recovered from the repeal fight in July, 4 GOP senators are back in full force to cut Medicaid and Medicare funding, on which millions of Americans and thousands of nursing homes rely for quality in care.
If somehow passed and finalized before its September 30 deadline, the Republican Party’s repeal could lead to nursing home closure. It could grant independent nursing homes an even smaller piece of a pie consumed by corporate-chain facilities’ reimbursement scams. Ultimately, it could lead to many more instances in which nursing homes violate their elderly residents’ rights.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate is also considering a bipartisan Obamacare fix in support of the individual insurance marketplace, and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is spearheading a new single-payer system to expand Medicare.
“We need to work together to expand, not cut, healthcare for millions of Americans who desperately need it,” Sanders warns.
Indeed, if we can take away anything from the destruction of 2 recent hurricanes and a sudden uptick in the debate over healthcare budgets, it’s that health resources are stretched far too thin. The means to recover from Irma alone is not guaranteed. How many more disasters will we struggle to salvage in the future?