Nursing Homes Sued, Criticized for Sheltering in Place During Hurricanes

A study conducted by the University of South Florida suggests nursing home patients have a higher chance of dying if evacuated.
Published: October 31, 2017

Several nursing homes have come under fire for choosing to shelter in place over evacuating during hurricanes that devastated Texas and Florida in August and September.

Two Port Arthur, Texas, nursing homes are currently facing lawsuits from families whose loved ones died during the storms, reports the Associated Press.

“A lot of things went wrong, and went very tragically wrong,” says Chip Ferguson, a lawyer representing the two families.

Also in Texas, a man being evacuated from a Friendswood nursing home during Hurricane Harvey was found dead on a charter bus. Another elderly man died in a Corpus Christi nursing home after the facility chose to shelter in place.

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Authorities say it is difficult to determine whether the facilities’ decisions to shelter in place versus evacuate played a role in the deaths. Many older residents at nursing homes or assisted living facilities have underlying medical conditions. Specific criteria also needs to be met in order to be categorized as a storm-related death by local emergency officials.

Study Suggests Shelter in Place Safer than Evacuation

According to the Texas Health Care Association, approximately 4,000 patients in over 160 nursing homes were evacuated before or during Harvey. The other estimated 33,000 patients sheltered in place.

“A greater emphasis has been placed on sheltering in place in recent years, given the challenges and issues that can go with evacuations of this population,” says Kevin Warren, the chief executive officer and president of the association.

A study conducted by the University of South Florida’s Center on Aging suggests patients have a higher chance of dying if they are evacuated.

The study found that nursing home patients who were evacuated during a hurricane had a three to five percent higher chance of dying within 90 days and an eight percent higher change of being hospitalized than those who sheltered in place.

Kathryn Hyer, the study’s co-author, says the unpredictability of a hurricane’s path and its hanging conditions are reasons why sheltering in place is the preferred option.

“You shelter in place until you can’t shelter in place,” says Hyer.

Texas Nursing Homes’ Decisions to Shelter in Place Under Investigation

The two Port Arthur nursing homes facing civil suits believed sheltering in place was the right thing to do until the 26 inches of rainfall started to penetrate the building.

Once water began entering the facility, on-site administrators called emergency personnel for assistance. The call came too late as emergency workers were in the midst of responding to similar calls.

The facilities were offered support by the Cajun Navy, a group of volunteers who have access to boats, to help evacuate the residents. The staff declined the offer from the group as they were concerned with releasing weak residents to people without medical training.

The decision to turn down the group’s help was met with much disagreement. In one alleged incident, a member of the Cajun Navy pulled out a gun during argument in which he demanded access to the patients to evacuate them.

Following the two deaths, police seized records as part of a criminal investigation into the initial decision to shelter in place.

In total, 90 complaints have been filed against 53 nursing homes in Texas related to decisions made during Harvey, with the majority claiming patient neglect.

Christine Mann, a spokeswoman for Texas’ Health and Human Services Commission, says the agency is investigating each claim.

14 Florida Nursing Home Patients Die Following Hurricane Irma

In Hollywood, Florida, a nursing home had its license suspended after fourteen patients died in the days and weeks following Hurricane Irma.

The hurricane knocked out air conditioning and power to the facility. At least four of the deceased had body temperatures between 107 and 109 degrees, according to state authorities.

The nursing home was previously cited in 2014 and 2016 for not following generator regulations.

Regulators are currently investigating why administrators did not evacuate its 150 patients to an air conditioned hospital located just across the street.

“As more information has come to light on this egregious situation, this facility absolutely cannot continue to have access to patients,” says Florida Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Justin Senior. “This facility failed its residents multiple times throughout the horrifying ordeal.”

The owner of the nursing home has filed a lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Court arguing it followed an emergency plan overseen by Broward County during preparations for Irma.

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