In the aftermath of 2005’s destructive Hurricane Wilma, Florida lawmakers approved laws to protect motorists at risk of getting stranded on the interstate, and residents of new highrises who can’t climb stairs.
Proposed at the same time: a bill that would have required some nursing homes to have generators to protect frail elders from the ravages of heat and dehydration.
That bill died.
Cause of death: industry opposition and government miserliness.
The initial idea in the 2006 session was to require all nursing homes to install generators capable of cooling and running their facilities. That went nowhere as the powerful long-term care industry objected to the price tag.
A compromise bill would have set aside about $57 million to reimburse half the cost for some nursing homes that were willing to install full-service generators — and accept residents from other homes who were being evacuated.
The legislation was derailed in the Senate.
“The Legislature is horrible when it comes to everything that doesn’t have a tragedy behind it,” said then-Rep. Dan Gelber, who sponsored the legislation in the House of Representatives. “They have one now.”
“Now that there are dead residents in an unthinkable tragedy, they’ll probably solve the problem,” added Gelber, who is a candidate for mayor in Miami Beach.
On Wednesday, eight residents of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills perished after the home lost power and a portable cooling system malfunctioned. The Hollywood Police Department, along with healthcare and elder protection administrators, have begun investigations. All of the nursing home’s 140 or so residents were evacuated, and the state Agency for Health Care Administration froze all new admissions.
The Florida Health Care Association, the nursing home industry’s trade group, said Thursday afternoon that 39 of the state’s 683 nursing homes were still without commercial power. The state reported that 44 nursing homes were evacuated or closed.
The 2005 hurricane season was one of the worst in recent memory. It included Katrina, which later devastated New Orleans when its storm surge broke levees and flooded homes, and Wilma, a powerful Category 3 that tore through the Everglades and left a record-breaking 98 percent of South Florida without power. Wilma alone caused $20.6 billion in damages.
Nursing home administrators met at a summit in 2006 to discuss the lessons they’d learned, and to plot a strategy to avoid getting caught flat-footed in the future. A report from that summit said the industry needed to develop a power grid that prioritized nursing homes and other “critical care” facilities.
The group urged providers to contact power companies in the off-season and communicate the needs of their patients, and named generator-powered air conditioning as one of four general considerations when planning for a disaster.
Skip Gregory, a longtime administrator at AHCA, said he supported an industry initiative to include nursing homes among the highest priority customers when electrical utilities deployed to restore service after hurricanes.
Florida Power & Light and other utilities fought the effort, said Gregory, an architect who served as AHCA’s bureau chief in the Office of Plans and Construction from 1993 through 2010.
“It’s a slippery slope for them,” Gregory told the Miami Herald.
“Their argument was if it went to nursing homes, then [assisted living facilities] would come back and say ‘what about us?’ Then everybody. My conversations with them were always ‘if we do it for them, we have to do it for everybody — and then have no priority.”
Ultimately, the utilities insisted that only patients on life support — meaning hospital patients — would be a priority, Gregory said.
Miami Herald staff writers Elizabeth Koh and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.