NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) – Electricity is a casualty well before the worst of a hurricane arrives. As we found with Ida, power outages can be deadly, especially for the elderly and assisted living populations.
Hurricane Ida’s power outages caused seniors problems. The Louisiana Department of Health and the city of New Orleans have taken steps in hopes of protecting the most vulnerable residents this hurricane season.
In the wake of Ida, over 800 nursing home residents were evacuated to a Tangipahoa Parish warehouse by their respective facilities and some relatives had no idea their loved ones had been taken there.
“I didn’t know if my mom was dead or alive,” said Renetta Derosia.
The Louisiana Department of Health investigated complaints of inhumane conditions at the warehouse and evacuated the nursing home residents.
Zurik: Nursing home residents evacuated to warehouse describe ‘nightmare’ conditions
Now, Bob Dean and the seven nursing homes he owns are excluded from participating in federal health care programs. The LDH revoked the licenses of all seven nursing homes that evacuated to the warehouse.
“HHS is standing guard. We will do what it takes to protect our programs and our beneficiaries,” said Kenneth Kraft with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General.
Further Kraft said, “So when we saw news reports that multiple residents had died from multiple nursing homes owned by the same person we took notice and we took action.”
That means Dean and his nursing homes also cannot receive money from federal health care programs.
“Yes, the exclusion means that the nursing homes owned by Mr. Dean are prohibited from receiving federal health care reimbursements like Medicare and Medicaid. The state decision was to revoke their licenses to operate, the exclusion has nationwide impact,” said Kraft.
“First, we had to exclude the seven nursing homes then we could exclude the owner and that serves our key priority which is to protect residents so that others don’t find themselves in the same situation as those nursing home residents,” said Kraft.
The Louisiana Nursing Home Association says there are approximately 22,000 people in nursing homes in the state.
“Whenever you have human suffering and death on the scale you had at the Waterbury site in Independence, of course, what you want to do as a state agency that licenses these entities is you want to learn from that,” said Stephen Russo, LDH’s executive counsel and director of legal, audit, and regulatory compliance for the agency.
Russo says LDH sought external help to evaluate its protocols.
“What we did immediately after the Waterbury incident is we got a consulting firm on board that looked at our processes, found out where we could do some improvements,” said Russo. “We then also immediately reconstituted the Nursing Home Emergency Preparedness review committee and ran some of the ideas from the consulting firm by that committee.”
Legislation is moving through the state capitol to give LDH authority to approve emergency preparedness plans for nursing homes.
“The main thrust of that legislation provides LDH with the ability to approve emergency preparedness plans from nursing homes. What it will also do is, instead of just the 22 parishes in the lower part of the state, it will require nursing homes throughout the state to file their emergency preparedness plans with the department of health for approval,” said Russo.
State Rep. Joe Stagni, R-Kenner, authored HB 933. The legislation requires evacuation sites to be inspected ahead of time.
“And we wanted a redundancy of approval not only by LDH but also by the local emergency preparedness office as well as the state fire marshal,” said Stagni.
“In order to try to hedge against the tragedy that happened at the Waterbury Warehouse for any nursing home that has an evacuation site, either a primary site or a secondary site that is an unlicensed provider type, the department will go out at least twice and inspect that site,” said Russo.
That aside, Russo says the LDH has already begun inspections of unlicensed evacuation sites provided to them by nursing homes in the lower 22 parishes. And he said they will also look at plans for sheltering in place.
“They have longstanding relationships with maybe schools, maybe churches, maybe some other locations such as that, that aren’t licensed by the department, but it also does not necessarily mean that they aren’t safe places that individuals can evacuate to for a short period of time,” said Russo.
Ida impacted assisted-living facilities and senior housing complexes, too.
“They don’t have the same sort of responsibilities to their residents, however, these are residents who we found, when you go without power for a few days are the ones that are very, very vulnerable to the effects of heat and so, unfortunately, we, although we identified a lot of residents and were able to help them there were some that died because they did not leave, they didn’t have the resources and their buildings really became uninhabitable quickly,” said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, Director of the New Orleans Health Department.
Avegno says the city took action ahead of this hurricane season.
“There’s now an ordinance on the books as of the fall that says that, if you are in an apartment building, again living independently but that building has a significant amount of residents who are elderly, they receive federal funds to support low-income seniors or some permanent support of housing that management has to have a plan. They have to know who’s in the building. They have to know who needs special equipment so if power went out who might be at high risk because they can’t get their oxygen machine to work, or their power wheelchair to work. They also have to provide name and contact information for someone who’s going to be staying on the premises. That was a big problem,” she said.
Avegno says her department is assisting the facilities.
“We’ve been working. The Health Department, the Department of Homeland Security has been working with all of these facilities to help them. This is not designed to be punitive,” said Avegno.
FOX 8 asked Russo if assisted-living facilities are licensed by the state.
“Yes, ma’am they are and they also have emergency preparedness plans. Assisted living though, the residents are not as fragile as nursing home residents. So a lot of those folks either have their own transportation to evacuate or, what we find is, a lot of times they will evacuate with members of their immediate family,” he said.
He and Avegno urge everyone to prepare now for hurricane season.
“Be an advocate for your loved ones. Nursing homes, by rule and regulation, are required to let you know where they plan to evacuate, therefore you should inquire about that. You should make sure your contact information is up to date with those nursing homes,” said Russo.
“Certainly, our message is always have a plan and include the most vulnerable family members in that plan,” said Avegno. “Make sure that your loved ones have at least 30 days of medication.”
FOX asked Russo if LDH is prepared to evacuate nursing home residents this hurricane season.
“Yes, absolutely. As part of the going on-site of the unlicensed sites, one of our officers and team members here at the department is looking already at potential staging areas, potential triage areas,” said Russo.
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