The horrific scenes from a South Florida nursing home, where 12 residents perished in the sweltering heat after Hurricane Irma knocked out power to the facility, will haunt Floridians for a long time to come.
But the broad, sweeping rules Gov. Rick Scott mandated — and their hasty timeline — were unrealistic. A judge ruled in November that the Agency for Health Care Administration didn’t have the authority to force every nursing home and assisted-living facility in the state to invest in emergency generators and fuel by Nov. 15.
The Legislature adopted a modified version of Scott’s plan. The new law doesn’t require permanent installation of generators, but does mandate that every facility secure enough emergency power to cool 20 to 30 feet of space per resident for at least 96 hours.
The majority of the facilities covered by the law still fell short, The News Service of Florida reports. As of May 25, 102 of the state’s 686 nursing homes had adequate equipment available. Another 348 had asked for six-month extensions. Only 205 of the state’s 3,102 assisted-living facilities have equipment lined up. Another 344 have approved extensions.
That leaves state regulators with a hairy decision. Do they level harsh fines against roughly two-thirds of the state’s long-term care facilities?
The best option may be for Scott and legislative leaders to negotiate a little wiggle room, understanding that the state must keep driving toward the goal of making each of these facilities as safe as possible, and as soon as reasonably achievable.
That starts with prioritizing nursing homes, where residents are usually frailer and, for the most part, incapable of getting themselves to safety during and after a natural disaster. That was one reason the death toll at the The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was so high; there was a hospital across the street with room for the elderly patients, but home administrators didn’t move them, focusing instead on trying to have the facility’s power restored.
That should never happen again. Those nursing homes that can’t provide generators and air conditioning must have a workable plan to get their charges to safety. State regulators should focus their efforts on a continued push to prepare for emergencies in the most practical ways, saving punitive fines for those facilities that simply defy the law.
The situation at assisted-living facilities is more complex. Many of the residents at ALFs are still alert and agile; some still drive, and very few are confined to their beds. Furthermore, ALF administrators don’t get help from Medicaid in prepping their facilities for storms. As with nursing homes, the focus should be on crafting workable plans that fit each facility’s residential mix and access to safe alternatives.
Eventually, all long-term care facilities should have on-site generators and adequate fuel, safely stored. But driving facilities out of business with harsh fines and license sanctions could only make matters worse.
This guest editorial was originally published in the Daytona Beach News Journal, a sister newspaper of the Daily News within Gatehouse Media.