Florida nursing home called governor's personal cellphone for help

PHOTO: Police surround the Rehabilitation Center in Hollywood Hills, Fla., which had no air conditioning after Hurricane Irma knocked out power, Sept. 13, 2017. PlayJohn McCall/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP
WATCH Family of nursing home residents reveals conditions inside

The personal cellphone of Florida Gov. Rick Scott was called by nursing home officials at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills asking for assistance, the governor's office confirmed to ABC News on Saturday.

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Eight residents of the nursing home, which is affiliated with Larkin Community Hospital, died this week after the facility's air conditioning system failed in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

The governor's office said Friday that the calls were made to a cellphone controlled by Scott's office but confirmed Saturday the nursing home called the governor's personal cellphone.

Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills left messages on the cellphone that were referred to two other agencies, the governor's office said.

“Every call made to the governor from facility management was referred to the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Florida Department of Health and quickly returned,” John Tupps, Scott's communications director, said Friday,

In a statement, the Florida Department of Health said, “It is 100 percent the responsibility of health care professionals to preserve life by acting in the best interest of the health and well-being of their patients. Let’s be clear -- this facility is located across the street from one of Florida’s largest hospitals, which never lost power and had fully operating facilities. The tragic and senseless loss at Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center is the subject of a criminal homicide investigation by law enforcement.”

Scott said in a statement earlier this week that he was "heartbroken" to learn of the deaths and planned to "aggressively demand answers."

"If they find that anyone wasn't acting in the best interests of their patients, we will hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” the governor said.

Scott on Saturday ordered the directors of the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Elder Affairs to issue emergency rules to keep residents safe in health care facilities during emergencies. This requires all assisted living facilities and nursing homes to obtain ample resources, including generators and the appropriate amount of fuel to maintain comfortable temperatures for at least 96-hours following a power outage.

Most of the deceased were treated for respiratory distress, dehydration and heat-related issues, officials said. Some of the patients admitted to nearby Memorial Regional Hospital had temperatures of up to 106 degrees, hospital officials said Thursday.

Their ages ranged from 71 to 99, according to police.

Nursing home says it repeatedly called for help

The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills says in a timeline released by its public relations firm that it repeatedly called emergency hotline numbers and the power utility for help after the air-conditioning system failed.

The nursing home said it took precautions before Irma hit, placing 10 spot coolers and fans around the facility, according to the timeline provided by Hill and Knowlton, the center's public relations firm.

Beginning Monday, after the hurricane swept through, the nursing home called emergency hotlines about the electrical problem with its air-conditioning system. It continued making calls on Monday and Tuesday, including to the electric utility. Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills said it also got additional spot coolers from a hospital on Tuesday, and on Tuesday night its staff did rounds on patients "to check that the patients were stable," the timeline said.

Emergency complaint filed against the nursing home

A Miami law firm has filed an emergency complaint against the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, court documents filed Friday show.

The law firm is representing the estate of Albertina Vega, 99, who died at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, according to the court documents. The complaint is requesting that a judge grant an order to protect evidence.

The complaint alleges that as early as Sunday, the center became aware that its air conditioning equipment had "ceased to operate effectively and appropriately." The facility then took "meager measures" to control the temperatures in the building by placing "only a few portable air "coolers" throughout the building's 81,000 square feet, according to the complaint.

The residents were "forced to live in these deplorable and dangerous conditions" for almost three full days, the court document states.

The complaint alleges that Vega died as a result of what it calls the "appalling conditions" and that this is not the first time the center has had serious complaints against it. Because of what they say is the "high-profile nature" of the case and what they characterize as the center's "record of appalling conduct," the attorneys say they have reason to believe that the evidence in the defendant's possession may be destroyed, withheld or altered, according to the court document.

The complaint is also requesting the surveillance video from the center to determine what measures were taken before, during and after the center found out that the air conditioning was not working properly.

Named in the complaint as defendants are the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, the facility manager and the administrator, among others.

A video, which ABC News is not showing, taken Tuesday night shows the parents of Carmen Veroy inside the center.

The video begins with a shot of Veroy's 89-year-old father, lying in bed dressed in a hospital gown, holding a Styrofoam cup. The camera then pans over to show his wife, 89-year-old wife, lying on a separate hospital bed, also dressed in a hospital gown.

In describing the video, which Veroy said was taken by her sister, Veroy says her parents are uncomfortable in the heat.

Veroy's father had a 102-degree temperature, she said. Both of her parents are still being treated after the ordeal, but she said she does not know which facility she will place them in when they are discharged soon.

Veroy said she visited the nursing home every day and often found staff to be lax. Veroy also said the facility has had issues with its air conditioning and mold in the past.

However, Veroy also said she spoke to staff before Irma hit and believed she had left her parents in a safe place.

The attorneys representing the nursing home did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comments regarding the complaint, the allegations made by Veroy or the calls that were allegedly made to the governor's office.

A 'crisis' unfolding

The city says it first "became [aware] a crisis was unfolding at the facility after multiple calls in the early morning hours" Wednesday, city spokesperson Raelin Storey said Thursday.

Hollywood Fire Rescue crews responded to the nursing home for a call at about 3 a.m. Wednesday regarding a patient who was reportedly in cardiac arrest. That patient was transported to a hospital, police said.

At 4 a.m., firefighters were sent back to the facility to transport a patient reportedly experiencing breathing problems, police said. After the second call, fire officials called the state Department of Children and Families to report concerns about the facility.

A third call later came in as well, police said. After additional crews arrived, three patients were found dead on the second floor of the nursing home, and several other patients were found to be in "varying degrees of medical distress," authorities said.

The nursing home eventually evacuated all of its patients Wednesday morning at the order of the responding crews.

Nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo said in a statement that the facility was evacuated Wednesday "due to a prolonged power failure to the transformer which powered the facility's air conditioning system as a result of the hurricane."

"Facility administration is cooperating fully with relevant authorities to investigate the circumstances that led to this unfortunate and tragic outcome. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who were affected," he added.

In a later statement, Carballo said, "The center and its medical and administrative staff diligently prepared" for the hurricane.

"We took part in emergency management preparedness calls with local and state emergency officials, other nursing homes and health regulators," he said. "While our center did not lose power during the storm, it did lose one transformer that powers the air conditioning unit. The center immediately contacted Florida Power & Light and continued to follow up with them for status updates on when repairs would be made. Outreach was also made to local emergency officials and first responders.”

Hollywood police are investigating the eight deaths.

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