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State Continues Records Battle With Nursing Home

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.

After being ordered to quickly turn over copies of thousands of death certificates from across the state, the Florida Department of Health has gone to an appeals court in a months-long records battle with a Broward County nursing home where residents died after Hurricane Irma.

Attorneys for the department filed a notice of appeal Wednesday, a day after Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis issued a formal order requiring the agency to turn over the records to The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.

The nursing home and the state have been locked in a series of legal fights since September, including a fight about a state attempt to revoke the facility’s license. The nursing home filed a public-records lawsuit Jan. 31, alleging that the department had improperly refused to provide copies of death certificates for people across the state from Sept. 9 through Sept. 16 --- a period that included Hurricane Irma and its immediate aftermath.

An attorney for the nursing home indicated during a hearing last week that the facility is seeking the addresses of locations where other people died during and after the massive storm. Lewis on April 20 had ordered the Department of Health to hand over the documents, but lawyers for the nursing home accused the state of dragging its feet in producing the records. The nursing home also challenged costs that the department wanted to impose for the public documents.

But the Department of Health has pointed, in part, to a need to review and redact information from the records --- an argument that Lewis rejected from the bench during the hearing last week and in the formal order issued Tuesday.

Lewis wrote that the Department of Health is “specifically ordered to immediately (within 24 hours of receipt of this order) produce to petitioner electronic copies (e.g. via email, drop box, a flash drive, or other appropriate medium) all of the approximate 5,907 death certificate records that petitioner has requested (and which were previously ordered to be produced by this court’s April 20 final judgment), all without review or redaction of any information or fields on the death certificates, except the ‘cause of death’ field information, which should not be included in any of the death certificate records produced to petitioner.”

But the Department of Health filed notice Wednesday that it was taking the case to the Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal, a move that places an automatic stay on Lewis’ ruling. As is common, the notice did not provide detailed legal arguments, but it pointed to the issue of reviewing and redacting information from the records.

“The order directs the Florida Department of Health to release approximately 5,907 death certificate records to the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, LLC, without any review or redaction of any information or fields on the death certificates, except the ‘cause of death,’ ” said the notice, posted on the Leon County clerk of courts website.

The notice was filed just hours after the same appeals court backed the state Agency for Health Care Administration in other legal disputes with The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. A three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld agency decisions last year to suspend the nursing home’s license to operate, suspend its participation in the Medicaid program and place a moratorium on Medicaid admissions.

The state also has moved to revoke the facility’s license --- a decision that is being litigated in the Division of Administrative Hearings. 

The legal fights are rooted in the nursing home’s loss of its air-conditioning system Sept. 10 as Hurricane Irma pounded the state. The outage created sweltering conditions that resulted in the facility being evacuated Sept. 13. Authorities have attributed 12 deaths to problems at the nursing home after the storm.