RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Florida Governor Rick Scott has instructed the state Medicaid agency to remove a Florida nursing home from the program. It comes after eight of the residents there died. Air conditioning at the facility failed during Hurricane Irma, and sweltering days passed before emergency services evacuated residents to a nearby hospital. Joining me with the latest on this story is NPR's Joseph Shapiro. Joe, what more do we know about the eight deaths at that nursing home? This was at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, right?
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Right. So now we have federal, state and local officials all doing their own investigations. One question is, why were there mass deaths at this one nursing home when it didn't happen and others?
SHAPIRO: There were 150 nursing homes in the state that had lost their power that day. Officials at the nursing home said they called the power company when the air conditioning went out, but the county hadn't listed it as a top priority. And then another thing to look at in Florida, there - in recent years, there have been efforts to cut back regulations on nursing homes on things like staffing levels. All nursing homes get a national federal rating, and this one had a below average rating for the quality of its care.
MARTIN: But it does seem like every time there's a natural disaster, there are these stories of people passing away in nursing homes.
SHAPIRO: Elderly people are the most vulnerable in a natural disaster. So during Hurricane Katrina, about half the people who died were 75 and older. People died when they weren't evacuated from nursing homes and hospitals. And some people died on the road when they were evacuated.
MARTIN: But you mentioned Katrina. I mean, after Katrina, wasn't there this big push to try to get the government to put new regulations in place, to try to make some kind of changes that would prevent this from happening?
SHAPIRO: Yes, absolutely. So the Federal Department of Health & Human Services, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and FEMA, they've all added departments that are specifically responsible to better coordinate care for elderly and disabled people during natural disasters. And a year ago, the federal government issued new rules for nursing homes and hospitals.
So now they have to do more complete planning. There has to be training. They asked there be more cooperation with different agencies - health care agencies, law enforcement. But those rules don't take effect until this November. That's more than 12 years after Hurricane Katrina. There was some opposition from nursing homes and hospitals over the cost of some of those regulations.
One of the new rules addresses the problem that we saw that nursing home in Florida, where eight people died. But it probably doesn't go far enough because the new rule says a nursing home has to have generators and alternative sources of energy to keep temperatures at safe levels. But - and when the air conditioning went out in - at that nursing home in Florida, they had those alternative sources. They had portable coolers. They had fans, but it wasn't enough to keep those residents safe.
MARTIN: But you're saying there are these new rules, they're just being implemented really slowly. Are there other groups that are stepping in or trying to move quicker on this?
SHAPIRO: Yeah, that's interesting. I listened in yesterday on a phone call of a new grassroots group called the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies. So it was started by groups representing elderly and disabled people. And on that call, there were representatives of FEMA, state disaster relief officials in Florida and staff from different disability groups around the state. They've got a hotline, and it was ringing all day.
There was a call into the hotline about an - elderly people at a trailer park in DeLand, Fla. They needed oxygen tanks. And someone located tanks nearby. The night before, there was a call about another nursing home in Sunrise, Fla., without air conditioning, and a state agency sent generators.
MARTIN: So lots of people paying attention to this issue.
SHAPIRO: Yes. And it's important. In a crisis, so many things can go wrong for elderly and disabled people.
MARTIN: NPR's Joe Shapiro, thanks so much.
SHAPIRO: Thank you.
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