Action News Jax Investigates: A safety risk at Jacksonville-area nursing homes

Local nursing homes miss deadlines

An Action News Jax Investigation exposes local nursing homes and assisted living facilities missing deadlines designed to keep seniors safe.

Action News Jax Investigator Ben Becker is pressing caregivers about what they're doing to protect your loved ones.

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Jean Johnson remembers the last hours of her friend Betty Hibbard's life.

"When we walked in it was so hot … She says, ‘I can't breathe, I can't breathe Jean,’” Johnson said.

Hibbard was one of 12 people who died in 2017 when Hurricane Irma knocked out to power to her nursing home.

Their deaths led former Gov. Rick Scott to sign a new law last March mandating nursing homes and assisted living facilities submit their plans for back-up power generators that keep buildings cool, medical equipment running and seniors safe.

“As a daughter it makes you nervous?” Becker asked.

“It does, it does,” Michelle Collins said.

Collins’ father was in an assisted living facility.

“A lot lose the ability to ask for help or let anybody know what is going on,” Collins said.

In an Action News Jax Investigation, we scoured state records and found up to three dozen nursing local homes and ALFs missed the initial June 1 deadline to submit their plans. They also missed a January 1 deadline to ask for a variance or extension.

So we paid a visit to Opis Riverwood Center, which is listed by the state as having missed the deadline. After telling our crew to turn off our camera, the director said "they know what they are doing," but wouldn't answer Becker’s questions.

Becker then went to Deerwood Place. The state says has it has no plan for backup power.

Its corporate office sent us a letter from the state, saying it received an extension until April 1.

Brookdale has eight local locations. Records show several haven't meet the new mandate including its Southpoint location.

A spokesperson later said the equipment has been delivered and will be installed by qualified technicians:

"We have both rented and owned generators arranged for deployment to communities, inclusive of qualified technicians to connect the generators, should a power outage occur."

Jeanne Helton is a health care attorney and said the industry was caught off guard by the mandate.

"It was not something people had budgeted for," Helton said.

The legislature estimates during the next five years, it will cost nursing homes and assisted living facilities a combined $366 million to comply with the law with only about a third offset by taxpayers through Medicaid.

Florida's Agency for Health Care Adminstration sent this statement on the delays, reading in part, "before our agency grants a variance, the facility must demonstrate it has made every effort to attain compliance, that they satisfied the requirements for a variance, and that any delay in compliance with the rule is temporary."

As for Collins, she wants the state to step up and make sure the new law is being followed.

"Walk throughs and kind of make sure all these facilities have all their ducks in a row and everything and the people are safe and being well taken care of," Collins said.

The fine for not complying with the law is up to $500 a day, not to exceed $5,000 total. Facilities could also lose their licenses -- but that is up to the discretion of regulators.

But families pay a price too. According to Genworth Insurance, the cost for long-term care in Jacksonville is $53,000 a year, the third highest in Florida. Nursing home care is a seemingly whopping $97,000, but that is actually the least expensive in the state.