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Rick Christie: Are nursing homes risking too much with delays on backup generators?

Palm Beach Post - 11/20/2018

Nov. 19--And no, they are not kidding.

With barely a couple weeks left in the 2018 storm season, more than 40 percent of Florida nursing homes are asking Florida health-care regulators for more time to meet backup-power requirements.

Yes, the very same generator requirements pushed through the Florida Legislature after Hurricane Irma last year -- the deadliest storm to hit our state in years. And yes, the very same nursing home and assisted living industries that have been crying poverty since lawmakers reluctantly put the two new regulatory rules in place.

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To be sure, the state's the state's 680 nursing home and 3,100 assisted-living facility (ALF) operators were given a tall order. Upgrade your backup systems so that in the case of a loss of power you can cool off designated areas of your facilities for up to 96 hours. And do it by June 1, the start of this year's hurricane season.

And, I hasten to add, no one expected all of the facilities to pull it off. Even though hundreds of extensions have been granted to Jan, 1, 2019.

It was, as one spokesperson for the ALF industry told the News Service of Florida (NSF), "a large (financial) burden coming in a very short space of time."

Agreed, but this lack of compliance is dismal. It's also a necessary burden given that 12 elderly residents of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died as a result of the sweltering heat after the facility lost power when Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017. It was a nightmare scenario for the families of those residents who had entrusted their loved ones to the Hollywood facility -- which, as it turned out, already had some "issues" with the state Agency for Health Care Administration (ACHA).

Gov. Rick Scott rightly acted swiftly to impose new backup generator rules on nursing homes and ALFs. That's saying something, given that he came into office removing whatever regulations he could from the industry -- and others -- alleging such regulations were costly.

The deaths of those Hollywood Hills nursing home residents unfortunately taught us the potential cost of a lack of regulation, as well.

That's why a whole lot of folks should be breathing a sigh of relief, especially nursing home and ALF operators. Hurricane Michael came ashore in the Panhandle as a Category 4 storm, and has so far tallied about $1 billion in insurance claims in eight counties.

But thank goodness Michael was no Irma, which shut down power to roughly two-thirds of the state at one point.

According to News Service of Florida review of state documents, "between Sept. 4 and Nov. 15, 305 nursing homes submitted requests for "variances" with AHCA asking for additional time to make modifications necessary to have backup generators and accommodations to store 72 hours of fuel onsite.

"By contrast, 184 nursing homes had reported to the state that they had made the necessary changes. That's about 27 percent of the licensed nursing homes in the state."

Further, NSF reported, "At least 173 ALFs have filed for variances with the Florida Department of Elder Affairs seeking additional time to comply with the rules, which require providers to be able to maintain cool zones.

"According to a state website, nearly 55 percent of assisted living facilities have implemented backup power plans."

Industry lobbyists blame delays on local permitting and building-code requirements, backlogs for generators, and of course, cost.

But none of that would have held up to another facility failing to protect some of the most vulnerable among us. And we know we can't keep dodging this bullet forever.

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(c)2018 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

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