- George Bennett Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Rick Scott’s administration moved Wednesday to shut down a Broward County nursing home where nine overheated seniors died after Hurricane Irma knocked out the facility’s air conditioning.
The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which had already ordered a moratorium on new patients at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills and suspended its participation in Medicaid, on Wednesday suspended the nursing home’s license to operate.
“The action AHCA took today to close the Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center sends a clear message – if you do not protect the patients that are entrusted in your care, you will be held accountable,” Gov. Scott said in a statement AHCA released with a copy of the license suspension.
A lawyer for the center, which on Tuesday filed a legal challenge to the state’s cutoff of Medicaid, responded late Wednesday that AHCA was “making allegations which simply do not describe the conditions” at the center.
“The caregivers at Hollywood Hills responded to the conditions with which they were faced in real time,” said Kirsten K. Ullman, one of the center’s attorneys. “They contacted the appropriate authorities, and were assured that FPL would arrive shortly on a number of occasions to fix the A/C…. It is only based on hindsight of outcome, that the reasonable actions taken at the time are being criticized.”
Scott has blasted the nursing home since the first deaths this past week while disputing suggestions by the Rehabilitation Center and political foes that he and the state didn’t do enough to help the facility get its air conditioning running.
The governor’s office has acknowledged that the Rehabilitation Center administrators called Scott’s cell phone four times on Sept. 11 and 12. But the office said the callers never indicated that patients were in danger or needed to be evacuated.
Every call from the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills to Scott’s phone was returned by a state official, said the governor’s office, which said the nursing home’s management “was advised by the state multiple times to call 911 if they had any reason to believe that any lives were in danger – something they failed to do.”
Eight of the nursing home’s patients died on Sept. 13 and a ninth died this week. The Hollywood Police Department on Tuesday night listed the ninth resident who died as Carlos Canal, 93.
FPL this past week released a statement saying it is “limited in what we can say” because of the investigation but adding that “there was a hospital with power across the parking lot from this facility and that the nursing home was required to have a permanently installed, operational generator…we urge our customers who have electricity dependent medical needs, and who don’t have power to call 911, if it is a life-threatening situation.”
Scott’s office responded late Tuesday by releasing 159 pages of phone logs, emails and other records related to the state’s interaction with the facility, which is under criminal investigation for the deaths.
With Republican Scott expected to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson next year, Democrats have intensified efforts to link the governor to the nursing-home deaths.
Nelson, in a Senate floor speech Monday, mentioned the nursing home deaths and “all the phone calls that had been made that were not answered, both to the government as well as to the power company.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Tuesday accused Scott of a “failure to respond” to requests for help from the nursing home’s administrators.
Scott is pushing back hard against his critics.
“No amount of finger pointing by the Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Facility and Larkin Community Hospital Behavioral Health Services will hide the fact that this health-care facility failed to do their basic duty to protect life,” Scott said in a statement released Tuesday night. “This facility is failing to take responsibility for the fact that they delayed calling 911 and made the decision to not evacuate their patients to one of the largest hospitals in Florida, which is directly across the street.”
After Scott’s administration issued the orders this past week imposing the moratorium on new admissions and suspending the home’s participating in Medicaid, the Rehabilitation Center filed a lawsuit in Tallahassee on Tuesday seeking an injunction against AHCA to block the orders.
“With the stroke of a pen, AHCA has effectively shut down Hollywood Hills as a nursing-home provider in Broward County,” the lawsuit said. “These illegal and improper administrative orders took effect immediately and without any opportunity for the facility to defend itself against unfounded allegations.”
Scott’s office said the governor gave his personal cell-phone number before the hurricane to “mayors, sheriffs, police chiefs, county and city officials, nursing homes, ALFs and fuel and utility providers.”
Irma passed through Broward County on Sunday, Sept. 10. At about 3 p.m. that day, the nursing home’s air conditioning chiller went down but the rest of the facility continued to have power. The facility said it put in place eight “spot coolers” as well as fans to keep temperatures down inside the building.
More than 24 hours later, at about 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 11, Larkin Community Hospital Behavioral Health Services CEO Natasha Anderson called Scott’s cell phone and was sent to voice mail.
“I said it was urgent,” Anderson told The New York Times this past week. According to the Rehabilitation Center’s lawsuit filed Tuesday, Anderson stated in her message “that the AC transformer located on the FPL pole for the facility was tripped during the hurricane and the facility needed immediate assistance to reset it.”
The timeline from the governor’s office says a Scott aide retrieved the message about two hours later. The call was returned about 9:50 p.m. by Department of Health Chief of Staff Alexis Lambert, the governor’s office said.
“Chief Lambert advised Anderson to call 911 if there was any reason to believe that the health or safety of patients was at risk. The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills reported issues involving air conditioning but did not, at any time during the call, report or indicate that conditions had become dangerous or that the health and safety of their patients was at risk,” Scott’s office said.
That’s consistent with the nursing home’s timeline, which said that on the night of Sept. 11, “the building was still cool and the spot coolers were in place maintaining required temperatures.”
The next day, Sept. 12, callers from the Rehabilitation Center left two voice mail messages on Scott’s cell phone that were retrieved at 10:25 a.m. Another voice mail was retrieved at 12:50 p.m., according to the governor’s office timeline.
In one of the messages, Anderson said she was calling “to report an emergency,” according to the Rehabilitation Center’s lawsuit against AHCA.
According to the nursing-home’s timeline, it received additional spot coolers from Memorial Regional Hospital at 3:15 p.m. on Sept. 12.
An AHCA official returned one call to nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo at 4:17 p.m. Sept. 12, the governor’s office said. Another AHCA official called Anderson at 4:41 p.m.
According to the governor’s office timeline, both Carballo and Anderson said the nursing home’s “chiller” wasn’t working but that spot coolers and fans were in place. Neither nursing-home official indicated patients were in danger, the governor’s office said.
In its lawsuit, the Rehabilitation Center says Carballo and three medical professionals made rounds at the nursing home throughout the day on Sept. 12. As late as 11 p.m. that night, patients “all seemed comfortable and no issues were identified…None of these health-care professionals reported any patients or residents being in distress or having any significant problems.”
A few hours later, at 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 13, the nursing home says the first victim experienced an elevated heart rate and was taken to the hospital.