- The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board
It’s jarring to realize that hundreds of extended-care facilities in the state of Florida — where hurricanes have been known to happen —have been operating for years without generators strong enough to keep their frail residents from suffering in subtropical heat when the power goes out.
But that’s what we all learned to our shock and horror in September, when eight residents of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Broward County died in the sweltering heat that followed Hurricane Irma. Six more died after evacuation.
Gov. Rick Scott, previously a sworn enemy of government regulation, swiftly issued emergency rules to plug this unconscionable gap in our system of care for the elderly. He ordered the state’s 680 nursing homes and 3,100 assisted-living facilities to have generators and enough fuel to keep temperatures at 81 degrees for 96 hours in an area of refuge after a power outage.
And he was right to do it.
The facilities were given 60 days — meaning, until Nov. 15 — to comply.
What’s followed has been widespread noncompliance as industry groups, groaning that the schedule was unrealistic and/or the equipment too expensive, filed lawsuits seeking to block the order. A receptive administrative-law judge invalidated the emergency rules, but the Scott administration appealed and maintained that they’re still in effect, upon threat of fine or license revocation.
On and on it went as the hurricane season petered out — with, at best, only a modest increase in generators.
About 100 nursing homes are complying with the order — probably because they had a large-enough generator already, according to Bob Asztalos, chief lobbyist for the Florida Health Care Association, the state’s largest advocacy group for long-term care providers.
About 600 nursing homes have applied for six-month variances from the rules, and the state Agency for Health Care Administration has acted on only about 40 of the requests, the News Service of Florida reported. Some 1,330 assisted living facilities also asked for variances.
So much for “emergency.”
We have previously implored the governor to stand firm against facilities that drag their feet on installing such vital equipment. But at this point, it’s clear that the current strategy isn’t bringing good enough results.
It’s time to draw up a plan that the nursing homes might actually follow. Not all of them have been balking out of bad faith, according to Asztalos of the FHCA, one group that didn’t try to block the regulations by suing the governor.
“We support the governor’s goal,” he told the Post Editorial Board last week. “But we have a few problems with the governor’s rule.”
Asztalos said it realistically will take nursing homes six months to install the generators in question. Some older buildings will need substantial rewiring. Some installations will face local permitting and zoning delays. Some cities prohibit storing as much fuel as the new regs require.
Just getting a price estimate takes time, said Gilda Osborn, administrator of the 180-bed Regents Park nursing home in Boca Raton. “We’ve had quotes ranging from $250,000 to $925,000,” she told the Editorial Board last week. They’re still deciding.
Supply is an issue, Asztalos added. “Everybody in Houston wants a generator, everybody in Puerto Rico wants a generator.”
And for some nursing homes near the coast, the generator requirement makes little sense at all, he said: Their emergency plans call for evacuating the building before a hurricane.
None of this means facilities should evade their responsibility. It means the Florida Legislature needs to take charge by enacting a law — one that includes input from the industry groups, information the Scott administration has refused to hear. Lawmakers should signal quickly that they will be setting a deadline of June 1: the start of next hurricane season.
Scott is surely hoping that his hardline, hero-to-the-rescue response to the Hollywood Hills tragedy will serve him well in next year’s U.S. Senate race. But what’s most important is that we get the right results.
It doesn’t matter if the governor, the Legislature or the Man in the Moon gets the credit; what matters is that every long-term care living facility in Florida is ready to keep its residents alive before the next hurricane roars in.