Messages left on the sidewalk of the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills nursing home a day after eight people died and a criminal investigation by local agencies continued into how the rehab center allowed patients to stay without a working air conditioning system during Hurricane Irma on Thursday September 14, 2017. PEDRO PORTAL pportal@miamiherald.com
Messages left on the sidewalk of the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills nursing home a day after eight people died and a criminal investigation by local agencies continued into how the rehab center allowed patients to stay without a working air conditioning system during Hurricane Irma on Thursday September 14, 2017. PEDRO PORTAL pportal@miamiherald.com

Hurricane

Nursing home says calls for help went unanswered but state disputes claims

By Daniel Chang

dchang@miamiherald.com

September 15, 2017 07:20 PM

The first call from the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills to Florida Power & Light was placed about six hours after Hurricane Irma made landfall in Cudjoe Key on Sunday.

Irma had knocked out power to the center where 141 elderly and frail patients lived, and the following morning FPL said it would be there to restore electricity to the air conditioning units, according to a time line provided to the Miami Herald on Friday by officials of the nursing home who asked not to be identified.

The allegations in the time line — that the facility called both FPL and the governor’s cellphone for help that didn’t come, along with comments from the state and the governor’s office denying the nursing home’s version of events — added confusion Friday to a case that includes a criminal investigation into the deaths by Hollywood police.

According to the nursing home time line, FPL didn’t show up as promised on Monday, or on Tuesday, and by the time the utility arrived on Wednesday morning to repair a transformer that powered the nursing home’s air conditioners, all of the patients had been evacuated and eight elderly residents were dead.

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Peter Robbins, an FPL spokesman, declined to comment on the nursing home’s claims Friday. But the utility issued a statement Wednesday that read, in part, “Because of the current investigations associated with these tragic events involving the nursing home, we are limited in what we can say.”

Here’s what FPL could say: “What we know now is that a portion of the facility did, in fact, have power, that there was a hospital with power across the parking lot from this facility and that the nursing home was required to have a permanently installed, operational generator.”

Further, FPL’s statement said, the utility met with Broward County officials in March to identify critical facilities that would be prioritized for power restoration. However, the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills was given a level of priority that fell below what the utility called “other critical facilities, such as hospitals and 911 centers.”

The Hollywood Hills nursing home is attached to a psychiatric hospital, Larkin Community Hospital Behavioral Health Services, which had 21 patients at the time.

According to the nursing home’s time line of events, workers placed spot coolers in the facility while waiting for power to be restored, and on Monday night, an executive for Larkin Community Hospital, which owns the nursing home and the psychiatric facility, called Gov. Rick Scott’s cellphone for help.

Officials tell the media what they witnessed at a Hollywood nursing home after eight people died on Wed., Sept. 13, 2017.

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Scott had given his cellphone number to nursing home officials during daily calls with Florida healthcare facilities impacted by the storm after it had passed, the time line says.

The time line states that a Larkin executive, Natasha Anderson, called Scott’s cellphone on Monday at 5:30 p.m. and left a message that power to the air conditioning system for the nursing home and psychiatric hospital had been lost, and they needed help restoring it.

Anderson, a Larkin vice president, exchanged calls with other state officials at least twice on Monday, according to the nursing home’s time line.

On Tuesday, she called Scott’s cellphone again and left another message, the time line says. Then she called Scott’s cellphone once more on Tuesday to tell him that the nursing home had yet to get help from FPL.

Scott’s office disputes the nursing home’s version of events, but not that the Larkin executive had called his cellphone.

“Every call made to the governor from facility management was referred to the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Florida Department of Health and quickly returned,” John Tupps, communications director for the governor’s office, said in a prepared statement.

AHCA also issued a statement saying it is “100 percent the responsibility of health care professionals to preserve life by acting in the best interest of the health and well-being of their patients.”

And Lauren Schenone, the governor’s press secretary, added that “this facility never requested any assistance or reported the need for evacuation.”

The governor’s office said that on Sept. 11, the health department advised the nursing home’s managers to call 911 if they feared for the safety of their patients. Nursing home official said they called 911 three times on Sept. 13: at 3 a.m., 4:30 a.m and finally at 5:43 a.m.

Carmen Veroy’s 89-year-old parents, Libia and Gabriel Giraldo, survived the ordeal — but Veroy said she could not fathom the overheated conditions in the rehab center until her sister sent her a video of the hallway scene during a visit Tuesday ni

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In addition to calling Scott, nursing home managers also reached out to the hospital across the street, Memorial Regional Hospital, asking to borrow spot coolers to keep their facility cool, according to the time line. Kerting Baldwin, a Memorial spokeswoman, confirmed that nursing home managers asked for spot coolers. But those coolers went to the psychiatric hospital, she said, and not to the nursing home.

Florida health department officials also dispute the nursing home’s time line. A rundown provided by the department this week shows that the facility didn’t report a power outage through the state’s online monitoring database until 5 p.m. Tuesday, the night before eight people died.

“Until 1:30 p.m. on the afternoon of [Tuesday], September 12th, the facility reported that they had full power, that heating, cooling systems and generator systems were operational and they had adequate fuel,” Mara Gambineri, a health department spokeswoman, said in a written statement.

And though nursing home officials reported having only partial power on Monday, they didn’t say the air conditioning was out until the following day. The governor’s office said that nursing home administrators never asked for anything beyond help with FPL.

It wasn’t until 7:30 a.m. on the day that patients were evacuated, Gambineri said, that nursing home administrators reported for the first time that the air conditioning was out.

Florida nursing homes certified for Medicare, such as the one in Hollywood Hills, are required by law to have a generator if they have residents on electricity-dependent life support systems.

Nursing home officials said they had a backup generator to power the lights and medical equipment. But the air conditioning for the nursing home and psychiatric hospital are powered by a separate source, which did not have a backup generator.

Still, federal regulations require all Medicare-certified facilities to keep indoor temperatures between 71 to 81 degrees Fahrenheit, and any nursing home unable to maintain those temperatures is supposed to act in the best interests of their patients’ safety, including evacuation.

For family members of some of the nursing home’s residents, the responsibility to keep elderly patients safe rested with the facility’s managers first, and not the state or utility, said Evangeline Moulder, whose mother, Bertha Aguiar, 93, survived the evacuation.

“It doesn’t matter,” Moulder said of the nursing home’s claims. “They should have called 911, not waited for FPL.”

Moulder filed a lawsuit against the nursing home this week for a fall her mother suffered at the facility resulting in a fractured hip. She said her mother had lived at the nursing home since March 2016. She was transferred to another nursing home, but the evacuation has worsened Aguiar’s condition, Moulder said.

“This confusion has made her very nervous,” she said. “It throws her further into dementia. It’s going to take a while to recover from this.”

Miami Herald reporter Caitlin Ostroff contributed to this report.

Daniel Chang: 305-376-2012, @dchangmiami