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Criminal Probe Opens in Florida Nursing Home Deaths

By John Commins  
   September 15, 2017

The heat-related deaths of eight people at a Florida nursing home has prompted a criminal investigation. The probe comes amid reports that the owner of the facility has a history of healthcare fraud.

Police in Hollywood, FL, have  obtained a search warrant in their criminal investigation of the deaths of eight elderly patients exposed to sweltering heat inside a Miami-area nursing home that continued to operate with little or no air conditioning after Hurricane Irma struck.  

On Thursday Florida Gov. Rick Scott directed the state's Agency for Health Care Administration to end the provision of Medicaid at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills facility. The Rehabilitation Center is pushing back against immediate efforts by state authorities to close its doors. Coral Gables attorney Gary Matzner, who is representing the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, told POLITICO on Thursday night that he will challenge the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration’s emergency moratorium on new nursing home admissions.

The eight deaths at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, days after Irma struck, stirred outrage at what many saw as a preventable tragedy, and heightened concerns about the welfare of the state's large elderly population.

"It was unnecessary," Bendetta Craig, whose 87-year-old mother was among dozens of patients safely removed from the center, told reporters on Thursday. "I don't know what happened inside. I wasn't there. I hope the truth comes out. It is just senseless."

  • The facility was is just one of nearly 700 nursing homes across the state, about 50 of which still lacked power as of Friday morning, according to the Florida Health Care Association.
  • The owner of The Rehabilitation Center has a history of health care fraud charges. Dr. Jack Michel in 2006 settled claims after he and five others were accused of agreeing to send patients to his Miami hospital, Larkin Community, for unnecessary treatment, according to the Department of Justice. Federal prosecutors said that Michel received kickbacks as part of the deal and that some of the patients came from assisted living facilities that he owned. 
  • Florida Sen. Bill Nelson has asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the tragedy. “What has happened here is inexcusable," Nelson said. "These kind of facilities should be regulated with a strong, tight rein ... and it hasn't happened... we will get to the bottom of it.
  • Memorial Regional Hospital Chief Nursing Officer Judy Frum said that the ER arrival of three patients with “extraordinarily high” body temperature “set off a red flag. We walked over to see if we could offer assistance.”

    What Frum and others from Memorial found at The Rehabilitation Center sent them into crisis mode. The scene at the nursing home was chaotic: Sweltering heat filled the building, where the air conditioning had been knocked out since Sunday.
  • After an estimated 215 people died in hospitals and nursing homes in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, policy makers realized that the nation’s healthcare institutions were ill-prepared for disasters.

    One of the new federal rules that takes effect in November will require that nursing homes have “alternate sources of energy to maintain temperatures to protect resident health and safety.”

    But the rule does not specifically require backup generators for air-conditioning systems — the nursing home in Florida, Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, did not have such a generator — and now some are questioning whether the rule should.
  • When the rooms at The Rehabilitation Center became too hot to bear on Tuesday night, some of the elderly patients were rolled out in their beds and wheelchairs into the hallway on the second floor. They were left there — some of them naked — a video shot by a resident’s daughter and viewed by the Miami Herald shows.

    “With multiple deaths, it calls into question everybody who works there and what did they know and when did they know it,” said Fort Lauderdale attorney Ken Padowitz, a former state prosecutor in Broward who has tried dozens of homicide cases.  

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders.

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