Editorial: New generator rules address equipment, not system

Twelve elderly people. That’s how many died either in, or as a result of sweltering heat at a Hollywood nursing home last year after Hurricane Irma knocked out the building’s air-conditioning system. There was no functioning backup generator.

One could barely imagine a more grotesque death for someone so old and frail. To die so tragically in a place they were supposed to be cared for, and safe.

Would that be enough to move a Republican-controlled Florida Legislature known for its anti-regulation hard line to ratify rules for nursing homes and assisted living facilities (ALFs) to have backup generators and fuel supplies to help keep the facilities cool for up to 72 hours? Yes.

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But with this tragedy fresh in their minds and that of the public, they could have done more. For example, lawmakers — one of whom publicly blamed the Hollywood victims’ age for their deaths, and later apologized — never even considered finally adopting a residents bill of rights.

It is notable that Gov. Rick Scott’s administration issued the new generator rules in September right after the “unfathomable” and “inexcusable” deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. But focusing entirely on generator rules treats the rehab center tragedy as a one-off. That’s a mistake; especially if a truly powerful hurricane hits.

RELATED: Florida nursing homes now permanently required to have generators to power A/C

The state Agency for HealthCare Administration and the Rehabilitation Center, which had a history of poor inspections by state regulators, are locked in litigation over the loss of the nursing home’s license to operate. ACHA has also blocked new admissions to Floridians Gardens Assisted Living Facility in Miami after staff at the 180-bed facility allegedly watched a resident pass away and never attempted to resuscitate the resident. Both are part of Larkin Community Hospital in South Miami, which has a questionable past of its own.

The Hollywood Police Department is also investigating the 12 Rehabilitation Center deaths as homicides, although no criminal charges have been filed.

Predictably, public finger-pointing has ensued. The Rehabilitation Center has said it begged Scott and Florida Power & Light Co. for help as Irma lashed South Florida. Nursing home managers said that after the facility lost power to the air conditioning unit, they called Scott’s personal cellphone repeatedly — as the governor had instructed them to do during hurricane planning meetings — and left messages. Nothing came of it.

Some survivors and families of the dead are suing the nursing home, claiming administrators did not prepare for the power outage or properly react to the dangerous conditions.

As we said previously, this really fell on the Legislature. And lawmakers needed to step up and go beyond what they should have done in 2006, following the disastrous 2005 hurricane season that featured Wilma and Katrina. A bill that would have required some nursing homes to have generators to protect frail elders from the ravages of heat and dehydration died due to opposition from the powerful long-term care industry.

RELATED: Editorial: Require generators for nursing homes in wake of deaths

Before the Hollywood incident, Scott hadn’t been much better. Soon after taking office in 2011, he quickly signed into law legislation that reduced safety protections for nursing home patients and also reducing the number of hours of direct care the patients received.

The governor shifted last fall, however. He managed to get the new generator rules through despite a reluctant House of Representatives, and cost complaints from some industry groups.

But this was a system failure, not an equipment failure.

Emergency preparedness officials agree that South Florida dodged a bullet with Hurricane Irma. Dozens of nursing home and ALFs likely did not have adequate generator back-up when the massive storm veered just enough to the west to spare our region its worst.

With less than a month before the official start of a new storm season, the state still lacks a thorough study of evacuation and emergency management plans for Florida’s 683 nursing homes and 3,100 ALFs, as well as their place on the priority list for power restoration by utilities.

And there remains a question of how many facilities will meet the June 1 deadline for the new generator rules.

This isn’t a time for back-slaps. Our lawmakers did the minimum when it came to nursing home safety. We can only hope that it’s enough this time around. But residents and their families deserved more.

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