Tampa Bay Times by Michael Van Sickler
November 18, 2017
From the Miami Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller and Caitlin Ostroff:
On a good day, Olga Vasquez would dress up in the morning, apply makeup and stand in the hallway at her Hialeah Gardens nursing home, helping other residents get in and out of wheelchairs or offering unsolicited advice. On a bad day, her depression got the best of her and she would remain in bed in her nightgown.
May 31, 2012, was a very bad day.
Vasquez — who hadn’t seen a psychiatrist in weeks despite instructions to the contrary — hoisted herself out of the window of Room 310, and hurled herself to the concrete courtyard 39.4 feet below.
This is the type of thing you might want to know about before your mom, dad or spouse moves into a nursing home. And such documented events were readily available on the website of state health regulators.
They aren’t anymore — part of the latest erosion in what is supposed to be ready access to public records in Florida.
A little under three months ago, the state scrubbed its website. No longer can you go online and view the 83-page report that found Vasquez’s death to be the result of misconduct and that determined other residents of Signature Healthcare of Waterford were in “immediate jeopardy.”
The document can still be obtained from the state Agency for Health Care Administration, although you have to know what to ask for and whom to ask — and you may be required to pay and wait. Online, AHCA now refers consumers to a separate website managed by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, though that site does not include as much material as the state previously provided. AHCA does maintain spreadsheets online that rate homes on a host of criteria, and allow consumers to compare.
For many years, AHCA’s website included links to inspections of nursing homes, retirement homes and hospitals. They were available with a few keystrokes with very few redactions. The agency then began to heavily redact the reports — eliminating words such as “room” and “CPR” and “bruises” and “pain” — and rendering the inspections difficult to interpret for families trying to gauge whether a facility is suitable for a loved one. AHCA says the redactions were necessary to protect medical privacy, though patients were identified only by number. Vasquez was “Resident 239.”
In the past year, the state spent $22,000 for redaction software that automatically blacks out words the agency says must be shielded from the public. Those same words were available on a federal website unredacted. Elder and open-government advocates said the newly censored detail did more to protect the homes than patients.
In September, 13 frail elders died miserable deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in the sweltering aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which knocked out the home’s cooling system. The Miami Herald and other media wrote extensively about Hollywood Hills’ troubling regulatory history. And the Herald also reported on AHCA’s decision to heavily redact reports.
Soon after, with no announcement or notice, AHCA wiped its website clean of all nursing home inspections, shielding the industry to the detriment of consumers.
“I’m just stunned,” said Barbara A. Petersen, who is the president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, an open-government group. “Government serves the people. They are doing a disservice, and one with potentially grave consequences.”
In recent weeks, Petersen needed to find a nursing home for her 96-year-old father in Colorado. The assisted living facility where he lived had become inappropriate, and Petersen had only 48 hours to move him.
“If I was in that situation here, and I had to do that without the information that used to be online, I’d have to submit a public records request for it. And, as we know, it takes a long time for them to produce public records. Meanwhile, I’d be stuck with the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life without any information.”
“We put a tremendous amount of trust in these homes, and we need to make the best decisions for our families. Honestly, this makes no sense,” Petersen added.
A spokeswoman for the healthcare agency said both AHCA’s website and the federal site at Medicare.gov allow consumers to compare homes along a range of indicators, including quality of life, nutrition, dignity and abuse.
“AHCA goes above and beyond Florida law in the amount of information we make available online,” said spokeswoman Mallory McManus. “AHCA’s website www.FloridaHealthFinder.gov allows consumers to compare nursing homes by their inspection rating. Consumers can search by county, Zip code and even by services offered at every nursing home in Florida. This gives families more information to make informed healthcare decisions for their loved ones.”
“In fact,” McManus added, “in 2016 FloridaHealthFinder.gov won a Digital Government Achievement Award from the Center for Digital Government in the “Government-to-citizen State and Federal government” category, showing that Florida is a leader in getting information about healthcare facilities to consumers. FloridaHealthFinder.gov is an excellent tool for consumers, and a national leader in transparency.”
The award was given before the state removed nursing home inspections from AHCA’s site. [READ MORE]