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After 8 Preventable Deaths in the Wake of Hurricane Irma, Tougher Laws Needed For Nursing Homes

The story of the death of 8 residents at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in the wake of Hurricane Irma has saddened our country. How could a nursing home lose power and leave residents to suffer in over 90 degree temperatures with just a few portable air conditioning units? Before news broke that the facility had a laundry list of violations and lawsuits, Levin & Perconti’s own Steven Levin was interviewed on national news channel HLN about the magnitude of the situation (watch his interview here). Steven Levin told HLN’s Carol Costello “Where was the staff? How could they not be on notice that they would have a power failure in this type of situation? And what, if any, precautions had they made in the event of a power failure. Forget the power failure. They knew there were going to be extremely high temperatures in this area at this time.”

Now, sadness is giving way to anger as news outlets have reported that the nursing home has a long history of violations, lawsuits accusing the facility of abuse and neglect, as well as prior citations for a faulty generator. The lack of a backup plan for a power outage at the nursing home speaks to the facility’s utter disregard for the health and safety of their residents.

Florida Senator Gary Farmer told ABC 10 that the state needs to strengthen the laws for nursing homes. According to Farmer, “We’ve insulated these nursing homes through deregulation in this state, and that’s how things like this can happen.” Stories of nursing home abuse and neglect and health and safety citations frequently go unknown by the public for many reasons. Nursing homes can be quick to settle lawsuits to keep them out of the public eye, and citations are only found by residents, their loved ones, and the public when they know exactly where to search. Citations can be cast aside by remedying the problem and paying a fine to the state Department of Health or the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). It was only after the 8 deaths that the state, under Governor Rick Scott’s order, shut down the nursing home.

Lawsuits and Inspection Violations
An attorney who filed a lawsuit last year against the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills described to ABC 10 how his client, 86 year old Maria Luongo, was left unattended in the nursing home and was able to be wheeled out of the facility by another resident. She was later found crawling in dirt over 2 miles from the nursing home. Maria Luongo suffers from dementia.

Other lawsuits allege similar cases of abuse and neglect, such as residents who have developed infections and bed sores due to poor care. The Miami Herald reported last week that the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was cited for multiple infractions by state health officials in February of this year, including a high medication error rate, failure to serve meals in a timely fashion, leaving a resident in a dark room staring at a tv for hours, poor hygiene for another resident, and cleanliness violations within the facility’s kitchen and laundry room.

The Law Allows for Leniency
It seems inconceivable that a nursing home who credits itself as being a “warm, caring place” could allow vulnerable elderly residents to suffer in sweltering heat for days without air conditioning. The law, however, does leave many loopholes when it comes to regulation of nursing homes. It also doesn’t help that the law varies greatly by state and that most of us are too overwhelmed when the time comes to admit a loved one that we don’t have time to scour the internet for nursing home laws.

Standards and expectations are one thing and as most of us know, this is not enough to prevent bad situations from occurring. Sometimes even strict laws aren’t enough. People still commit crimes, greed still sometimes overpowers good judgment, and abuse and neglect still happens. There are federal nursing home laws, but in Illinois, we also have something called the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act. This act establishes a code of conduct and standards, as well as the rights of nursing home residents. The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) is responsible for the enforcement of this act, and remedies for violations can include fines, recommending that funding be cut or eliminated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as well as recommending that a facility be decertified to the Illinois Department of Public Aid or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For most nursing homes found to be in violation of the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act, fines are assessed, problems are remedied for a subsequent inspection, and facilities continue operating. Most of the time we, the public, are unaware of the problems occurring. This is the current law. Unless serious abuse, neglect, and death cases are brought through our legal system, subpar nursing homes are able to continue operating under the guise of being a place that provides quality care for the elderly.

Will Recent Tragedy Finally Affect the Law?
Until the tragedy at the Rehab Center at Hollywood Hills occurred, the top headlines surrounding nursing homes were the Trump Administration’s plan to federally cap non-economic damages on nursing home abuse and neglect and medical malpractice lawsuits to $250,000, as well as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ plan to allow nursing homes to forbid admission to residents who won’t sign a pre-dispute arbitration agreement (a legally binding agreement to settle conflicts out of court, infamous for being unfair to nursing home residents). Now, with 8 preventable nursing home deaths at the forefront of everyone’s minds, will lawmakers finally vote against noneconomic damage caps and arbitration agreements in nursing homes? We hope for at least that, if not the passage of stricter laws that seek severe punishment for those who participate in nursing home moneymaking and kickback schemes, and the abuse, neglect and death of our most vulnerable citizens.

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