TALLAHASSEE | Nearly two weeks after Hurricane Irma crashed through the state, thousands of Floridians were still in the dark as estimates of damage in nearly all parts of the peninsula continued to escalate.
Also intensifying was tension between Gov. Rick Scott and a Broward County nursing home that turned into a hotbox after the massive storm wiped out the facility’s air conditioning. Ten seniors who had been residents of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills have died, and state and local law enforcement agencies are investigating the deaths. The facility pushed back by filing a lawsuit against the state for cutting off admissions and funding.
The public and private sectors’ response to Irma spurred House Speaker Richard Corcoran to set up a select committee to explore ways to make the state more disaster-ready in the future.
As the blue tarps go up, fallout from the storm — both literally and figuratively — prompted national officials, including U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, to witness the damage and pledge to deliver aid to the Sunshine State.
“More is going to occur. More is coming,” said Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who told reporters he spent his “youth” fishing off Islamorada and whose mother lives in Broward County. “We want the people of Florida to know that we are in it with you, that the federal response will be complete and that we have more work to do and that’s why we’re here, to assess this.”
Nursing home deaths spawn blame game
Health officials Wednesday issued an emergency suspension of the license of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, a day after the facility filed a lawsuit against the Scott administration for effectively shutting it down.
The license suspension was another step after the state Agency for Health Care Administration last week placed a moratorium on admissions to the nursing home and suspended it from the Medicaid program. The nursing home’s lawsuit, filed late Tuesday, challenged the admissions moratorium and the Medicaid cutoff.
Eight of the residents died Sept. 13, three days after Hurricane Irma shut down the nursing home’s air-conditioning system. The license suspension alleged that four of the residents had body temperatures of at least 107 degrees when they arrived at a nearby hospital or when they died. Two other elderly residents died this week.
“Respondent (the nursing home) failed to maintain safe conditions in its facility; failed to timely evacuate its facility once conditions were no longer safe for residents; and failed to timely contact `911’ during a medical emergency,” said the emergency suspension order, signed by Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Justin Senior.
But the nursing home pushed back, saying caregivers repeatedly reached out by calling a cell phone number given to the industry by Scott himself and calling state emergency officials and Florida Power & Light.
Kirsten K. Ullman, co-counsel for the nursing home, released a statement Wednesday night that said caregivers “continuously monitored their residents, offered them hydration, and implemented efforts to keep the facility temperatures as comfortable as possible.” The statement, in part, also took issue with the assertions that residents suffered from body temperatures of 107 degrees or more.
“It is not known specifically for how long, nor is it known when the AHCA cited temperatures were taken, where they were taken, by whom they were taken, or to which residents they are attributed to. However, before the evacuation, only two of the residents who passed away had elevated temperatures, neither of which were in the critical range,” Ullman said.
The deaths of the nursing-home residents have drawn national attention and a criminal investigation. The Scott administration and the nursing home also have released timelines of the events leading up to the deaths, as the two sides try to bolster their arguments.
On Thursday, the Hollywood Police Department, which is investigating the deaths, reported that a 10th resident had died.
But Ullman implied that the death of 93-year-old Martha Murray wasn’t the nursing home’s fault.
“Hollywood Hills cares for residents, including residents in hospice care in terminal condition. There has been a report of a resident who was discharged from Hollywood Hills one week ago who has passed away. Hollywood Hills has not been provided any information regarding this former resident’s passing. Hollywood Hills sends deepest condolences to the family at this time of loss,” Ullman said in a statement Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Florida Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, and LeadingAge Florida held a summit Friday to address an emergency rule aimed at requiring nursing homes to have generators to power air-conditioning.
Department of Lessons Learned
Corcoran’s newly created select committee will explore a number of ways to better prepare Florida for major storms like Irma, from creating a state gasoline reserve to protecting vulnerable seniors in nursing homes.
“With any event of this magnitude, lessons can be learned,” Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, said Tuesday in a memo to House members, announcing the 21-member Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness. “We must move quickly to assess our recent experience and pinpoint tangible, meaningful ways to improve Florida’s hurricane readiness and response capabilities.”
Corcoran told reporters that the impact of Irma, the first major hurricane to hit Florida since 2005, has changed the agenda for the 2018 legislative session, saying over the last decade the absence of storms has resulted in the state not being “as aggressive as we could or should be” in preparing for hurricanes.
“Gas wasn’t readily accessible,” Corcoran, who is mulling a run for governor next year, said. “Having a committee that looks at why does a state, in the richest country in the world, the third largest (state), why don’t we have a significant gas reserve in the central part of the state so that’s not an issue moving forward for our citizens?”
Also Tuesday, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, called on Scott to create a state commission to review how Florida handled Irma and the aftermath, including recovery efforts.
“We should learn from the experiences of this effort, while those lessons are fresh in our minds in order to positively impact future preparedness,” Brandes said in a letter to Scott.
Department of Non-storm News
Apparently learning from previous mistakes, state health officials released a highly anticipated process for businesses to vie for five new medical marijuana licenses.
The new rule, published Wednesday and going into effect immediately, outsources the evaluation of the applications to “subject matter experts,” requires “blind testing” of the applications, and includes a detailed application form — all departures from the Department of Health’s previous medical-marijuana regulations that spawned a series of legal and administrative challenges.
After voters last fall approved a constitutional amendment that legalized medical marijuana for potentially hundreds of thousands of patients with debilitating conditions, the Florida Legislature passed a law during a June special session requiring health officials to issue 10 new “medical marijuana treatment center” licenses.
The law gave health officials until Aug. 3 to issue some of the new licenses, and until Oct. 3 to select five more. Additional licenses must be issued once the number of patients in a statewide registry — now at 37,830 — reaches 100,000.
Whether the agency will meet next month’s deadline is questionable.
“The goal is still Oct. 3,” Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said in an email.
But industry insiders remained skeptical.
“It’s not just unlikely. It is literally impossible,” Ben Pollara, who was instrumental in the passage of the constitutional amendment and who represents a coalition of medical marijuana businesses, told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.