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Nursing Homes Lose Licenses Because Of Deaths And Unsafe Conditions In Hurricane Ida's Wake

Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the director of the New Orleans Health Department, announced the city is shutting down some senior residences during a press conference on Sept. 7.
Shalina Chatlani
Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the director of the New Orleans Health Department, announced the city is shutting down some senior residences during a press conference on Sept. 7.

Several nursing homes across Louisiana are losing their licenses and senior living facilities in New Orleans are being shuttered due to deaths and unsafe or substandard living conditions during and after Hurricane Ida.

On Tuesday, the Louisiana Department of Health announced its decision to formally revoke the licenses for seven nursing homes owned by Baton Rouge developer Bob Dean, after the department rescued over 800 people evacuated from those homes to a single warehouse ahead of Hurricane Ida.

The seven nursing homes in Orleans, Jefferson, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes are also losing their Medicaid agreements after seven people died in the wake of the evacuation.

Five of those deaths have been attributed to the evacuation and conditions at the warehouse in Independence, Louisiana, where authorities rescued people left to sleep on mattresses on the floor without enough food, water, toilets, or staff to care for them.

News reports describe people calling out for help and no staff responding. Officials have called the conditions “reprehensible” and “an affront to human dignity.”

“Let's be clear, there is no emergency preparedness plan that allows for residents to be kept in such an unsafe, unsanitary and unhealthy condition,” executive counsel Stephen Russo said in a press conference Tuesday. “The lack of adequate care for these residents is inhumane and goes against the rules, regulations, and applicable statutes.”

A full documentation of the state's notice to revoke the licenses and the exhibits used to reach the decision can be found on the Lousiana Department of Health website.

The City of New Orleans has also identified and inspected 32 senior living facilities so far that immediately needed to be assessed, and nine have been closed by the New Orleans Health Department. Ten facilities had to be evacuated.

On Sunday, the city’s health department reported the death of five elderly residents at these facilities. The city has prioritized the nine buildings that saw loss of life for inspection and have so far done a “deep dive” into six of them, as of Tuesday.

“We're looking for signs of problems and inspecting fire suppression, sprinkler systems, and pumps. We're looking for anything that may be or may become a fire hazard and anything mechanical ... obviously, the priority right now is these life safety issues so that we can get residents safely home,” said Peter Bowen, who heads the city’s Office of Business and External Services.

“We have identified some pretty significant deferred maintenance in all of these facilities.”

State nursing homes are required to submit evacuation plans to the state’s health department, as well as follow strict health and safety protocols. But Dr. Jennifer Avegno, Director of the New Orleans Department of Health said the city doesn’t have those protocols in place and it’s created a significant policy gap that officials hope to rectify.

“The facilities that we're talking about here do not have the same licensing requirements or regulations. Because of that, there's no real standard that says everyone in this type of facility has to have this type of oversight, accountability and plan for disaster,” Avegno said.

“That's the policy gap that we at the city, this administration, city council and state, probably federal partners as well, are going to look to address what are the commonalities that would create a standard of care for residents in these types of buildings.”

She added that “this is the first big test since Katrina ... so, I don't think we had fully understood how great the gap was.”

Evacuation plans for the nursing homes shut down by the state were reviewed by the health department ahead of the storm. The department said Tuesday that those plans appeared to show that the warehouse could safely hold residents for a short period of time.

Avegno said that generally the nursing home evacuation plans are successful. But, the seven homes where deaths occurred and lack of care was identified didn’t follow their approved plan.

“They had a plan and the plan on paper was reviewed and found to be appropriate. However, the plan on paper was not what happened,” Avegno said.

The state alleges that health department staff who tried to enter the warehouse soon after Ida subsided were threatened, harassed and intimidated by Dean, the facilities’ owner.

The site was inspected by the department's Health Standards section, which ensures facilities abide by state regulations, and the office of public health. According to a press release from the department, there were “plans for staffing, food service and laundry, potable water, portable toilets, and a working generator appropriately sized for the facility.”

“We now know the level of care for these residents plummeted,” Courtney N. Phillips, the department's secretary, said in the release.

In notices sent to the nursing facilities revoking their licenses, the health department alleges that Dean did not reach out to the state for help. Instead, it says he “was orchestrating a campaign with the goal of preventing a proper assessment of what the situation was at the site via threats, harassment and intimidation.”

In a timeline outlined by the health department, staff visited the site on Aug. 31 after receiving reports from third parties and were “expelled” by Dean and prevented from completing a site visit. Text messages in one of the exhibits show some of these third-party reports.

Residents were relocated over the course of Sept. 1 and 2 to state shelters and other medical facilities.

Dean told WAFB that “the Fourth Amendment says that they have to have a warrant to come on private property, much less seize persons or properties so they came on there illegally.”

“We only had five deaths within the six days and normally with 850 people you’ll have a couple a day so we did really good with taking care of people,” he told the news station.

The health department is continuing to investigate the evacuation and its aftermath, as are other state agencies, including the attorney general’s office.

Shalina Chatlani is the health care reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson.
Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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