Gov. Rick Scott has made every effort to wash his hands of the Sept. 13 South Florida nursing home tragedy, which left 12 residents dead. In my opinion, he shouldn’t absolve himself so quickly.
The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, a 152-bed nursing home, left a series of voicemails on Scott’s personal cellphone after losing air conditioning during Irma, asking him to ensure Florida Power & Light prioritize the facility.
After three days of using spot coolers and fans to tame stifling heat, eight residents died with body temperatures as high as 109.9 degrees. Only then were people evacuated to Memorial Regional Hospital directly across the street. Four more residents have died since.
Facility representatives shrugged in response, maintaining they followed emergency preparedness protocols. They shifted blame onto Scott for failing to deliver an FPL rescue squad. Scott fired back saying, “It’s a ridiculous and irrational suggestion that my personal cell phone is somehow a substitute for 911.”
The governor is right. Medical professionals — especially those who tout their proximity to one of the state’s largest hospitals — have no excuse for failing to monitor the health of their residents. Alas, he may still prove responsible.
Scott took office in 2011 during a regulatory crisis in Florida’s health care industry. A Miami Herald investigative report released three months after his inauguration uncovered widespread, systemic abuse and neglect of elderly in Florida long-term care facilities.
“While his caretakers watched him die … ,” one incident from the report began. “(T)hey let him languish for days at the Tampa assisted-living facility where he lived in 2006 — vomiting and defecating in his bed ... ”
These stories shocked lawmakers and health care industry professionals. According to Brian Lee, the former state director of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, lawmakers almost unanimously expected serious overhaul and reform in the 2012 legislative session, which didn’t happen.
Fast forward to 2014. An expansive health care reform bill finally reaches the governor’s desk, and he quickly signs it into law. But this reform massively deregulates the industry, decreasing oversight of assisted-living facilities, such as those criticized in the Miami Herald’s report.
So why would a governor sign a bill like this into law following these horrific revelations?
Health care birthed Scott. At age 34, he co-founded what would eventually become the largest private for-profit health care company in the U.S. The money he made as CEO propelled him to the governor’s office, and in his 2014 re-election bid, health care companies topped his list of largest campaign donors.
Put plainly, Scott looks out for the industry that gave him his political legs. The tragedy at the Hollywood Hills rehab center is the consequence of that decision.
A Medicare agency inspection this year rated the facility “much below average” in health inspection and a “below average” overall rating. Issues included failure to “store, cook, and serve food in a safe and clean way.”
What’s more, the nursing home’s manager, Dr. Jack Michel, paid $15 million in 2004 to settle Medicare and Medicaid fraud claims without admitting wrongdoing.
None of this was enough to impose stricter regulatory measures on the facility. Scott led efforts in the opposite direction, allowing the implementation of complicated redaction software which turned facility inspection reports into fragmented codes that require a cryptographer to decipher them.
According to Lee, consumers now can’t distinguishing between high and low quality homes. Residents gamble, and health care providers slouch with profitability unscathed.
Until we hold Scott and the state legislature accountable and establish a powerful lobbying arm in Tallahassee for nursing home and assisted-living facilities’ residents, this situation won’t improve, and we can only wait for what horrors the next investigative report turns up.
Champe Barton is a UF economics and behavioral and cognitive neuroscience senior. His column appears on Fridays.