Federal regulators on Thursday said they are cutting off Medicare, a crucial financial lifeline, to the Hollywood Hills nursing home where residents died from sweltering heat after Hurricane Irma knocked out power to the facility’s air conditioning and forced an emergency evacuation in September.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, also imposed a penalty of $20,965 a day for the three days that the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills lost power to its air conditioning unit, from Sept. 10 — when Irma made landfall in Florida — to Sept. 13, when the facility was evacuated as its residents wilted.
The nursing home has been closed since the evacuation. But in a letter to its administrator, Jorge Carballo, a CMS official said the agency was suspending the rehab center from the Medicare program because a state survey on Sept. 22 found that conditions at the facility posed an “immediate jeopardy” to the health and safety of residents.
Operators of the nursing home said in a written statement Thursday that they intend to fight the state and federal agencies that have moved to suspend the rehab center from the public health insurance programs, Medicare and Medicaid, in the weeks since the evacuation.
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Attorneys for the nursing home already have filed legal challenges to the state’s sanctions, and they plan to appeal the federal government’s proposed termination, too, said Geoffrey D. Smith of Smith & Associates, which represents the rehab center.
Smith said the nursing home “firmly believes that an impartial trier of fact will find that the actions of RCHH in response to the natural disaster were entirely appropriate and fully consistent with all state and federal rules, regulations and policies.”
A total of 14 residents of the nursing home have died since Hollywood police and firefighters, along with doctors and nurses from Memorial Regional Hospital next door, evacuated the center’s 141 residents. Their deaths are under criminal investigation by the Hollywood Police Department. There are also administrative reviews being conducted by two state agencies: the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Children & Families.
The tragedy prompted Gov. Rick Scott to impose emergency rules requiring all nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in Florida to purchase generator capacity by Nov. 15 to keep their residents safe and comfortable in a power outage.
Florida officials also halted all new admissions to the nursing home and suspended its billing privileges under Medicaid, the public health insurance program for low-income and disabled people that is financially critical for long-term care facilities such as nursing homes.
Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly, also is a key financial source for nursing homes because it covers short-term stays, such as rehabilitation and recovery from surgery.
Under the CMS sanctions announced this week, Medicare will continue to pay the rehab center through Nov. 12 for any care that was provided to residents before the evacuation and closure.
But the Rehabilitation Center has not given up the fight to get back into business.
Calling the home “devastated by the lives lost,” the rehab center’s attorneys asked a judge in Tallahassee to prevent state health regulators from going forward with a halt to all new admissions, and a suspension of the rehab center’s Medicaid reimbursement. A hearing in the legal challenge is scheduled for Oct. 27 in Leon County.
But that’s not the nursing home’s only obstacle to reopening. On Sept. 27, the Rehabilitation Center reported to state officials that it had laid off 245 employees, including nurses and other caretakers.