The horrific end of the lives of 11 elderly people in a sweltering nursing home in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma has no shortage of culprits.
These helpless human beings spent their last hours in cardiac and respiratory distress in a hellhole run by incompetent people who had a major hospital a parking lot away and didn’t seek help. The first to die took their last labored breaths amid staff who, instead of calling 911, dialed the governor.
Adding another layer of outrage to this tragedy in the middle of the night on Sept. 13, is that nurses at the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills falsified the patients’ medical records, adding fake readings of body temperature and respiratory conditions to make the dying patients’ status seem less life-threatening, according to the state.
The patients who died — moms, dads, sisters, brothers, grandparents and great-grandparents to people who loved them, and one woman, a lonely soul without family — had body temperatures that exceeded 108 degrees.
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It doesn’t get any more egregious and criminal than the combination of negligence, incompetence — and a cover up.
The nursing home’s owner and the administrators and staff are clearly most at fault for the deaths. They had an obligation to keep their patients safe and living in humane conditions even throughout a disaster. And they had an obligation to get them timely emergency help when they could no longer handle the situation.
But there’s plenty more blame to go around.
The elderly are like children, frail, unable to care for themselves, and vulnerable to abuse and negligence. Those who don’t have money or advocates and require round-the-clock care end up in places with deplorable conditions like this center because this is the kind of society we live in. People without money are particularly disposable.
In Florida, the long-term-care industry has one of the most powerful lobbies in the state, the Florida Healthcare Association, which has called the Hollywood deaths “an isolated incident.” But there’s no toning down the implications of this case. What the association wants from legislators and the governor’s mansion — lax regulation, favorable terms, maximum profit — they usually get, despite a dismal record of abuse and neglect at assisted-living facilities around the state documented by newspapers like the Miami Herald.
It’s an industry in which emergency management plans are a copy-and-paste job from year to year. And, as we’ve seen in this case, as far as solutions go, it doesn’t get more pathetic than, in the middle of a disaster, nursing home staff calling a governor hotline or writing to a city commissioner to say they have no functioning air conditioning. Or no shutters or plywood. And the person on the other end of the line replying, well, what does your emergency management plan say to do?
The healthcare association puts a pretty face on elder care, but they fall short in reality. The group is staging a “summit” in Tallahassee on Friday about caring for the elderly in a disaster. A little late, don’t you think? But I guess better late than never. Given the prior history, I’d say the real concern is that their members are up against a 45-day deadline imposed by the governor, under fire, for nursing homes and ALFs to come up with plans that include generators to cool the facilities after the loss of power.
As for the governor, these deaths have exposed the vulnerabilities that result when he and the Republican-dominated Legislature prioritize conservative, penny-pinching-the-poor ideology over the needs of the most defenseless.
It’s business first and people last under the watch of Gov. Rick Scott, added to a decade or two of legislative failures. Hence, the finger-pointing contest going on between the crappy nursing home and the stingy governor who refused to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid and presides over a state agency that routinely turns down elderly people who qualify for Medicaid.
What is the purpose of government if not to protect us, to share the burden of care at a time of need? If it isn’t the role of government, then we must accept the shared guilt that we’ve chosen to live in a society that holds as a value that people with money are the only ones in position to protect their elderly.
On Wednesday, the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration finally suspended the license of the misnamed Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood.
Agency Secretary Justin Senior said the deaths were “horrifying” and “unfathomable.”
“No amount of emergency preparedness could have prevented the gross medical and criminal recklessness that occurred at this facility,” Senior said.
Perhaps, but that doesn’t make the state blameless.
The Florida Legislature, the governor and AHCA could be more vigilant and make the elderly in long-term care facilities a priority. The nursing home owner, administration, and staff are ultimately to blame for the deaths. But the industry, the governor, the state agency in charge, and the Legislature share it. For one, they could’ve shut down this place after federal health inspection reports shared with the state documented deplorable conditions.
No, there’s no white-washing this one.