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New Rules to Protect US Nursing Home Residents are in Congressional Crosshairs

Tragedy in Florida Nursing Home Shows Need for Tougher Regulations

Police tape surrounds the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Hollywood, Florida, U.S., September 13, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

A month ago, eight people died in sweltering heat in a Florida nursing home after Hurricane Irma knocked out the air conditioning. Backup generators could have prevented this tragedy, but despite Florida’s proneness to extreme weather, the facility, The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, did not have the backup power to keep air conditioners going. Recently released 911 tapes detailed how staff desperately sought outside help as residents stopped breathing or had heart attacks.

This never should have happened. In the aftermath, Governor Rick Scott of Florida issued an emergency regulation requiring nursing facilities to have a generator and enough fuel to cool their buildings for four days.

Next month, new federal regulations protecting residents at nursing homes that accept Medicare and Medicaid payments are scheduled to go into effect. Among other things, they require nursing homes to plan for emergencies. But now it is unclear when or even if these regulations will go into effect.

In a letter sent recently, 120 members of the House of Representatives called on the US Department of Health and Human Services to put the new rules on hold for one year. A similar letter was sent from Senators last week. Echoing a longstanding nursing facility industry talking point, the House letter claims that the new regulations are unnecessary because, “providers…already have developed procedures and guidelines.” This is an indefensible position.

Voluntary, industry-led mechanisms have their place but are never an adequate substitute for oversight and regulation. This is particularly true of the nursing home industry, where bad conduct by companies can put the welfare, and even the lives of extremely vulnerable people, at risk. Whatever substantive concerns legislators might have with the new regulations, the idea that there is no need for strong government regulation to protect nursing home residents should not even be a part of the conversation.

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