December 15, 2017
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The nation is rightly shocked and outraged by the circumstances that led to the horrific deaths of 8 nursing home patients who resided at the Rehabilitation Center At Hollywood Hills, located in Hollywood, Florida. This tragic event has left many of the more than 1.4 million nursing home patients and their families across the country wondering: “how could this happen, and can it happen here?”

There remain many unanswered questions to be sure, and the excruciating details will likely become exposed in the coming days and months. But, according to various media accounts, there is enough already known about this tragedy to answer the above question.

To be clear, these nursing home deaths did not occur because of a hurricane or a power outage. These preventable deaths occurred because those responsible for this nursing home CHOSE not to adequately protect the vulnerable patients they were being paid to protect.  Those responsible for that facility knew they lived in a climate that required functioning air conditioning to keep their patients safe.  They knew they lived in an area vulnerable to intense storm conditions that often cause power outages.  They knew for days that a once-in-a-generation category 5 hurricane was bearing down upon their state. Yet those responsible for this nursing home chose not to ensure that they had a functioning generator in place to properly power the air conditioners in the event of a power loss.  And, knowing that, they still chose not to evacuate the patients who they knew were at risk of death in a power outage.  This is true even though the nursing home was in close proximity to a hospital.  But it gets worse.

Even after those responsible for the nursing home chose to leave so many patients in harm’s way and exposed to brutal heat, and after they knew the dangerous scenario of a power outage came true causing the air conditioning to fail, they still chose to leave so many patients in place rather than to notify authorities and ensure safe evacuation.  According to news accounts,the nursing home officials reported the outage, but they gave no indication of the need to evacuate or that a loss of life was imminent.  Broward Mayor Barbara Sharief stated that the emergency team asked the nursing home if they had any medical needs or emergencies, “and they said they did not.  And they did not request assistance or indicate that any medical emergency existed.”

The 8 patients that died did not die from the storm or the power outage. They died because those responsible for that nursing home chose to subject them to the intense heat and dire conditions within that nursing home without air conditioning, rather than expend the resources needed to ensure that they had in place a generator system that would have kept the facility’s necessary air conditioning functioning. Then, those responsible for the nursing home chose not to ensure adequate resources were used to evacuate the facility. Even worse, rather than acknowledge these horrible failures, those responsible for this nursing home chose to withhold critical information about the conditions to which they were subjecting their patients from emergency teams that could have responded to help those literally dying from the sweltering heat.

Unfortunately, the underlying factors apparently in play with this Florida tragedy are all too prevalent within the U.S. nursing home industry, and and impact the care patients receive all across this country. The U.S. nursing home industry is engaged in a modern-day gold rush, seeking to capitalize upon the ever-increasing number of patients who need institutional care and the dollars they bring, by valuing profits over the patients they have promised to protect and care for.

This profit-driven industry rakes in more than $200 Billion each year, and that number is only going to increase. In 2014, nearly 70% of U.S. nursing homes were being operated by corporations with the stated purpose of making a profit.

Yet, far too many nursing homes choose to bolster their profits by cutting corners. They choose to skimp on the supplies, qualified staffing and other resources they need to properly fulfill their obligations to care for the patients. The results are obvious, but under-reported.  In one study, 44% of patients reported being neglected and 95% of the patients reported seeing other patients being neglected. Another study found 50% of the incidents of abuse witnessed by patients go unreported out of fear of retaliation by nursing home staff.  And, it’s been revealed that over 90% of nursing homes choose to employ convicted criminals to care for our nation’s most vulnerable population.

Meanwhile, these dirty details are swept under the rug as this industry employs a culture of cover-up to avoid accountability and negative publicity. The industry routinely lies to patients, families, and regulators because there is often little consequence. For example, 80% of nursing homes choose to falsely inflate their staffing levels that are reported on the Nursing Home Compare website — a critical data point for families desperately seeking to find a suitable facility for their loved one.

So with respect to the question of whether what happened in that Florida nursing home can happen here, the answer is sad, but clear and undeniable. It already does. The culture of choosing profits over patients, skimping on resources and staffing, and engaging in lies and cover-ups all happens right here, right now. Not every incident involves a headline reporting 8 deaths at a time. But isn’t the fact that this same conduct is allowed to happen here and everywhere, cause for the same concern even when it causes injury after injury, and death after death — just one patient at a time?

Of course. The real question is what are we going to do about it?

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Jeff Powless is the author of the book, Abuses and Excuses: How To Hold Bad Nursing Homes Accountable.

The Powless Law Firm is an Indiana law firm that represents victims and families state-wide in serious cases involving nursing home neglect, medical negligence, personal injury and wrongful death. If you have concerns about nursing home neglect or abuse, please contact us at 877-769-5377. Together we can make a difference.

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