Nursing home blames FPL, state for 8 deaths after Hurricane Irma

The Broward County nursing home where eight seniors died in suffocating heat after Hurricane Irma attempted to shift the blame Friday, saying Florida Power & Light and state officials ignored its pleas for help restoring power.

The Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills went on the offensive as at least two families of seniors who died took legal action Friday to preserve all evidence, including video surveillance, in preparation for suing.

The governor’s office struck back at the nursing home’s criticism, issuing an extraordinary press release late Friday questioning a timeline the nursing home released.

“At no time did the facility report that conditions had become dangerous or that the health and safety of their patients was at risk,” the governor’s office stated. “In fact, on Monday, Sept. 11, Department of Health staff advised this facility to call 911 if they had any reason to believe that their patients were not safe.”

After the deaths were discovered early Wednesday and 145 patients evacuated, Gov. Rick Scott directed the Agency for Health Care Administration to terminate the facility as a Medicaid provider.

The nursing home’s timeline lists in detail all the interactions it says it had with FPL after Irma, which knocked out millions of customers throughout the state.

The Rehabilitation Center said it notified FPL as soon as a transformer that provides electrical power to the air-conditioning system went out while Irma whipped South Florida at 3 p.m. Sunday.

After the storm had cleared, the company maintains that FPL promised to arrive to fix the power in the morning and afternoon of both Monday and Tuesday but never showed. The center also said it contacted the Florida Department of Emergency Management and asked the state to pressure FPL to make it a priority.

Early Wednesday, the heat became unbearable. One patient had a rapid pulse at 1:30 a.m. and was sent to the Memorial Regional Hospital across the street, the company said in the timeline. An hour later, another had respiratory distress. At 4:30 and 4:45 a.m., two patients suffered cardiac arrest.

Five women and three men, ranging in age from 71 to 99, died from suspected heat-related issues. They are Albertina Vega, 99; Bobby “Foxx” Owens, 84; Carolyn Eatherly, 78; Gail Nova, 70; Estella Hendricks, 71; Miguel Franco, 92; Manuel Mendieta, 96; and Betty Hibbard, 84.

The legal actions were taken Friday on behalf of the families of Vega and Owens.

Carmen Fernandez, a relative of Vega told NBC Miami that she visited her cousin after the storm had passed and found conditions overwhelming. “That was horrible, it was almost 100-something,” Fernandez said. “My blouse, I was walking from the main door to the nurse station, and I was soaking with water.

Governor’s response

Scott’s office disputed the nursing home’s claim that it had conveyed the seriousness of the situation or requested assistance to state officials.

In fact, up until Tuesday, the facility reported it had full power and later that it had partial power but that the cooling systems were working, Scott’s office said. It wasn’t until the evacuation of patients, the state asserted, that the Rehab Center reported it had no air conditioning.

FPL said it had no comment on the nursing home’s timeline, citing the ongoing criminal investigation. It has said the Rehab Center was not a top priority for power restoration even though it was right across the street from a major medical center that includes Joe DiMaggio’s Children’s Hospital.

In what is becoming a blame game, Broward officials said in a statement that they relied on an FPL document saying that nursing homes were “non-critical.”

Legal rumblings

Under state statute, families can’t immediately sue the nursing home. They must first put the facility on notice. The legal documentation filed by the families of Vega and Owens seek only to preserve evidence for future litigation. The nursing home said it would comply.

Boca Raton attorney Joseph Schulz, representing the Owens family, said state lawmakers have made it difficult to sue nursing homes in recent years.

“The laws are very much in favor of protecting these corporations and the people who run these nursing homes,” he said. “We believe the law needs to be changed to help those people who have been victimized by neglect and abuse in these homes.”

Critical inspections

The owner of the Rehabilitation Center, Dr. Jack Michel, is co-owner of Larkin Community Hospital in Miami-Dade County.

The nursing home failed to feed patients in a timely manner, bathe residents, or even clip their nails properly, state inspections found.

Flying insects were in the kitchen area. During lunch, inspectors cited “residents were being referred to by staff as ‘feeders’ and identified according to their room number, not their name.” One resident who had expressed interest in art and exercise was left in a pitch-dark room staring at a turned-off television.

A Medicare website rates the nursing home one out of five stars for a health inspection rating.

Alia Faraj-Johnson, a spokeswoman for the nursing home, said that all issues brought up by the state were immediately addressed and rectified. If they weren’t, the facility couldn’t have remained open.

The Rehab Center also was no stranger to attorneys suing.

“I was shocked when I heard about the eight deaths, but as soon as I heard it was in Hollywood, Fla., I said I guarantee I know the name of the place and sure enough it was the same location,” said Fort Lauderdale attorney Marcus Susen, who has sued the facility.

Aventura attorney William Dean said he has been suing the nursing home for 20 years under various owners. “They have a simple mandate: take care of the people in the facility. If they had any concerns they could have moved them,” he said.

Michel bought the nursing home in a 2015 bankruptcy auction after the previous owners were investigated for Medicare fraud.

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