FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – When 13 residents of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died apparently due to the heat in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Gov. Rick Scott took action.
He voided the nursing home's license and issued a stern emergency order for all other nursing homes and assisted living facilities to install generators with enough fuel to power 96 hours of air conditioning within 60 days.
But the deadline was Wednesday and more than 600 facilities have yet to comply -- with the governor's permission after the state Agency for Health Care Administration set up a waiver system to give the industry more time.
The facilities, which represent roughly 20 percent of all nursing homes and ALFs in the state, have filed waivers with the state, saying they couldn't meet the deadline. Florida Health Care Association spokeswoman Kristen Knapp said the facilities simply need more time to meet the deadline.
But patient advocates like Brian Lee claim it's just another example of Scott favoring the industry -- which has supplied millions of dollars to GOP political offers -- over patients.
"The generator rule is a Band-Aid fix and he's allowing the industry to dictate the terms -- for them," Lee, director of Families for Better Care, told Local 10 News. "This needs to be done now, actually yesterday, so this doesn't happen again."
Lee said the tough talk followed by lax action is standard for Scott, pointing to legislation in 2014 that was supposed to crack down on nursing homes that he says actually protected nursing home owners from litigation. Attorney Bill Dean, who makes his living going after bad-acting nursing homes and assisted living facilities on behalf of patients, echoed Lee.
"You hear the governor bitching and moaning about what happened, the governor and this Legislature every term cuts back on nursing home legislation," Dean said. "Gov. Scott and the Florida Legislature passed more legislation to make it difficult to sue the passive owners of nursing homes."
Lee also points to a 2015 bill signed by Scott that reduced the number of state inspections for assisted living facilities.
"In those facilities that have the most medically infirm residents, they cut those visits in half," Lee said.
Scott was also criticized when he fired the state's nursing home ombudsman in 2011 who had been a watchdog of the industry. That ombudsman was Lee himself, who said the firing had a "chilling effect" on the ombudsman's office but couldn't discuss the firing specifically after reaching a settlement with the state.
When questioned by Local 10 News investigative reporter Bob Norman on the issues, Scott simply kept repeating that he is holding the facilities "accountable."
"We want people to comply and we want people to be safe," he said.
Scott said the state has to "help them comply and then we ought to hold them accountable."
"Critics are saying that you're caving into the industry by giving out these waivers and you're not really cracking down. What do you have to say?" Norman asked Scott.
"If you look, we're following the law, and I'm expecting everybody to comply," Scott said.
Lee said the reason for Scott's siding with nursing home owners over residents comes down to political contributions. The industry has showered politicians in Tallahassee with millions of dollars. As an example, just one company, Consulate Health Care, pumped more nearly $700,000 into state political coffers in the past five years alone, almost all of it to GOP interests, including $250,000 to the Florida Republican Party and a cool $100,000 directly to Scott's PAC, Let's Get to Work, along with $18,000 into Scott's own political campaign in 2014.
"It always comes down to the bottom line," Lee said.
In an email to Local 10, the governor's office touted that it had improved communication between the regulatory agencies and the nursing home industry as well as toughened background screenings for nursing home employees. It also curiously claimed it had strengthened the ombudsman's office.
Lee said the latter was patently untrue and said the other two points were mere "crumbs for patients."
"Have you been on the side of the industry instead of the patients and the residents?" Norman asked the governor.
"No," he answered. "I've always been on the side of patients. I came out of, you know, the health care industry and I know the importance of patient care."
"But you've made it harder to sue nursing home owners and you've reduced the number of inspections in 2014. Why did you do that?" Norman asked.
"We have constantly held our nursing homes … accountable," Scott said. "I've done this emergency order, but no, we've held them all accountable."
"But you've held them less accountable," Norman countered.
"We've held them more accountable," the governor persisted.
"You deregulated," Norman said.
"If you look, we've held them accountable, and that's why did this emergency order to (hold) them accountable again," Scott said.
"But now you're giving waivers," Norman said. "But you're giving waivers right now."
At that point, Scott concluded the interview.
Lee said he doubts meaningful reform comes to the state's nursing home industry.
"I think, in the long run, the residents are going to lose," he said. "History has shown us they've lost every time."