Following the deaths of 14 residents at a Hollywood nursing home, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson plans to draft legislation designating an official in each state to oversee nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Florida actually has such a position, as do other states. It’s called an ombudsman. But the previous occupant in Florida, Brian Lee, was pushed out by Gov. Rick Scott. Lee, who had a reputation for aggressive inspections, ran afoul of the industry and the governor. Critics say the current Florida ombudsman program has curbed its ambitions considerably.
The governor’s office, in a statement, said the program hasn’t weakened, calling staff and volunteers tireless advocates. “Florida’s long-term care ombudsman program is a national leader,” the statement read. The Herald was unable to reach State Ombudsman Mike Milliken for comment.
After the incident at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, where 14 residents died when the air conditioning failed after Irma, Wilson said she’s looking to strengthen oversight. The ombudsman idea was aired after a hearing on disaster preparation Thursday at Miami Dade College’s North Campus.
Wilson, a Miami Gardens Democrat, said she organized the hearing to get expert opinions on what needs to change to protect frail and dependent people in the future. Mental health, emergency operations, fire rescue and nursing home personnel lined a table opposite Wilson and other elected officials.
In their opening statements, Wilson and Rep. Lois Frankel, a West Palm Beach Democrat, focused on the need for generators at nursing homes. Wilson said she wants to create a grant or small loans program through the Department of Health and Human Services to help nursing homes secure generators. Frankel noted that the governor’s office estimated the statewide cost of generators in nursing homes to be about $240 million.
After the deaths in Hollywood, Scott ordered that nursing homes have backup generators and enough fuel to run them for 96 hours by Nov. 15.
Despite many of the legislators focusing on generators, the eight experts on hand pointed them to other priorities: training for staff on responding and alerting authorities to an emergency, having a plan for evacuation that is feasible and disaster drills.
Kathryn Hyer, director of the Florida Policy Exchange Center on Aging at the University of South Florida, told representatives that seniors who are evacuated are more likely to die or need hospitalization after a disaster, as opposed to those whose facilities shelter in place.
Miami Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban echoed this, saying there needs to be more holistic planning than just generators.
“Fire trucks do not make a fire department,” he said, by example. “The personnel, the planning, the training, the exercise, along with the capital asset, is what makes for a successful team, and that in part is what is lacking in our community.”
Some experts at the hearing called for better training of nursing home staff, noting the lack of urgency heard in 911 calls made as patients died in the sweltering nursing home steps from Memorial Regional Hospital. But Evalina Bestman, the CEO of New Horizons Community Mental Health Center, said the needs of nursing home staffers must be considered as well — specifically their peace of mind while working during a disaster.
She highlighted Baptist Health System, which let family of employees stay at the hospital so they didn’t have to worry.
“We have to look to the whole mental health situation,” she said.
Wilson said she’s going to take the recommendations into account as she and other representatives prepare to draft bills to ensure assisted living facility and nursing home residents’ safety.
Rep. Henry “Hank” Johnson Jr. said he traveled from Georgia because the issues revealed at Hollywood Hills need to be addressed on a national level now that global warming has increased the likely and intensity of disasters.
“We have reached the point in the annals of human history that this has become the new normal,” he said.
Full statement of the governor’s office
“When a new administration begins, there is always turnover. It would be blatantly false to assume that the role of the program has weakened just because there is a different person in that position. In fact, Florida’s long-term care ombudsman program is a national leader and the current ombudsman has over a decade of experience at the Department of Elder Affairs.
“For example, in Federal Fiscal Year 2010-2011, ombudsmen conducted 3,250 assessments and visits to long-term care facilities, but in the recently-ended Federal Fiscal Year 2016-2017, that number was 8,698, an increase of 167 percent. This increased presence in facilities is one of many ways the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program staff and volunteers remain tireless advocates for those living in long-term care facilities.”
McKinley P. Lewis
Deputy Communications Director
Office of Governor Rick Scott