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Lawmaker Questions Cause Of Nursing Home Deaths

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
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The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A Republican state senator — and funeral director — is suggesting that a South Florida nursing home may not be to blame for 14 deaths that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said Wednesday he isn't convinced that all 14 deaths now associated with The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills stemmed from sweltering heat that filled the nursing home after it lost power following the powerful storm.

“Look at the population. You're dealing with the 90-somethings. Some of these deaths would naturally occur, storm or no storm,” Baxley said Wednesday at the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, adding “eventually everyone who was in that nursing home will die. But we don't need to attribute those all to the storm and bad policy.”

Baxley became one of the few politicians to take a different stance following the high-profile deaths at the South Florida nursing home. Many leaders, including Gov. Rick Scott, have sharply criticized the nursing home. A criminal investigation is underway.

Baxley made his comments during a meeting where legislators reviewed actions taken by Scott in the wake of the deaths. Eight residents died Sept. 13, three days after the air-conditioning system went out. Six others died subsequently after being evacuated.

On Sept. 16, Scott's administration issued emergency rules that require nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have enough emergency power to keep facilities at temperatures at or below 80 degrees for four days.

The proposed emergency rules gave facilities 45 days to submit their plans to the state and 60 days to implement the plans. Nursing homes have estimated that it could cost upward of $350,000 to have generators large enough for a 120-bed nursing home.

Industry groups LeadingAge Florida, the Florida Assisted Living Association and Florida Argentum have challenged the proposed emergency rules in state administrative court. A two-day hearing on the challenge has been scheduled for Thursday and Friday. The court will issue a final order within 14 days of the hearing. The groups also challenged the emergency rules in a state appellate court.

With his emergency rules facing the challenges, Scott on Tuesday directed the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Elder Affairs to also begin the traditional rule-making process.

Nursing-home industry officials have said they support the idea of having backup power for air-conditioning systems but that the 60-day timetable in the emergency rules is unreasonable.

“We believe that the governor's rule can serve as a starting point for the discussions, but you can't just back up a generator to a nursing home and plug it in,” Bob Asztalos, a lobbyist for the Florida Health Care Association, told the Senate panel Wednesday. “It just doesn't work that way.”

Hurricane Irma knocked out a transformer at the Hollywood-based nursing home. The building was evacuated Sept. 13, and the state has filed a moratorium to prevent new admissions. It also has suspended the facility's license and moved to eliminate the nursing home from the Medicaid program.

The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills is challenging those actions in a lawsuit pending in Leon County circuit court.