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After Irma Deaths, Rep. Frederica Wilson Pushes for Stronger Nursing Home Oversight

Miami Herald


By Caitlyn Ostroff

Following the deaths of 14 residents at a Hollywood nursing home, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson plans to draft legislation designating an official in each state to oversee nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Florida actually has such a position, as do other states. It’s called an ombudsman. But the previous occupant in Florida, Brian Lee, was pushed out by Gov. Rick Scott. Lee, who had a reputation for aggressive inspections, ran afoul of the industry and the governor. Critics say the current Florida ombudsman program has curbed its ambitions considerably. The governor’s office, in a statement, said the program hasn’t weakened, calling staff and volunteers tireless advocates.

After the incident at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, where 14 residents died when the air conditioning failed after Irma, Wilson said she’s looking to strengthen oversight. The ombudsman idea was aired after a hearing on disaster preparation Thursday at Miami Dade College’s North Campus.

Wilson, a Miami Gardens Democrat, said she organized the hearing to get expert opinions on what needs to change to protect frail and dependent people in the future. Mental health, emergency operations, fire rescue and nursing home personnel lined a table opposite Wilson and other elected officials.

In their opening statements, Wilson and Rep. Lois Frankel, a West Palm Beach Democrat, focused on the need for generators at nursing homes. Wilson said she wants to create a grant or small loans program through the Department of Health and Human Services to help nursing homes secure generators. Frankel noted that the governor’s office estimated the statewide cost of generators in nursing homes to be about $240 million.

After the deaths in Hollywood, Scott ordered that nursing homes have backup generators and enough fuel to run them for 96 hours by Nov. 15.

Despite many of the legislators focusing on generators, the eight experts on hand pointed them to other priorities: training for staff on responding and alerting authorities to an emergency, having a plan for evacuation that is feasible and disaster drills.

Kathryn Hyer, director of the Florida Policy Exchange Center on Aging at the University of South Florida, told representatives that seniors who are evacuated are more likely to die or need hospitalization after a disaster, as opposed to those whose facilities shelter in place.