With Limited Guidance from Medicare, Nursing Homes Prepare for Natural Disasters

After a spate of negative press coverage last year, Medicare has only issued limited guidance for the upcoming natural disaster season. After widespread lack of preparation in the wake of Hurricane Irma in Florida and Hurricane Harvey in Texas harmed America’s nursing homes, many patient advocates are worried about the nation’s nursing home residents. According to these advocates, the same systems and policies that led to widespread power outages and death last year have not been fixed yet.

Last September when Hurricane Irma struck Florida, residents of Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills found themselves stuck at a nursing home without any air conditioning, power, or a backup generator – all violations of Medicare policies. Sadly, fourteen of the residents at this now-closed nursing home passed away during the 90-degree heat which overtook the nursing home for a week. In response to these flagrant violations, Medicare passed emergency planning regulations last November which required each facility to:

1. Develop an emergency plan and specific actions for each possible natural disaster. These emergency plans must include key staff who will lead the response, communication procedures to ensure federal and state warnings are received and residents can contact their loved ones.
2. Develop a shelter-in-place program for each possible natural disaster, which will provide residents with sufficient food and living conditions to survive for up to ten days.
3. Develop an evacuation plan for each possible natural disaster.
4. Develop a system to track all staff and faculty during a natural disaster
5. Invest in sufficient generators and backup communication systems so the nursing home can survive for up to 10 days without power or phone service.

While the comprehensive version of these plans seems sufficient to avoid any the type of tragedies seen at Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center last year, elder care advocates do not believe that nursing homes, which house 1.4 million of America’s senior citizens, have adequately complied with the new Medicare regulations. Speaking to Bloomberg Law, Richard Mollot, executive director of Long Term Care Community Coalition, a New York nonprofit focused on elder care, said, “It’s unfortunate that these things happen and usually in America, we learn our lesson and we change course. But when it comes to nursing home residents, unfortunately, and assisted living facilities’ residents even more so, the change too often is not forthcoming, and when it does come, it’s weak and poorly enforced.”

According to Bloomberg, Medicare has not asked or tested any of the disaster preparation policies for the nursing homes across the country – even those in disaster-prone areas. In Florida alone, only 165 of the 684 nursing homes are in full compliance with the new rules. The other nursing homes in the Sunshine State have requested extensions.

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