Commentary

Unlicensed nursing home evacuation sites are a problem Louisiana can’t wait to fix

August 18, 2022 5:00 am
Nursing Home Scandal

Seven nursing homes owned by Bob Dean were shut down after it was discovered he had evacuated their residents to a warehouse he owns in Tangipahoa Parish. (Photo provided by WVUE/FOX 8 NOLA)

A public records request from the Louisiana Illuminator found documents that show more than a dozen hurricane-prone nursing homes plan to use evacuation sites the state health department has deemed unfit for that purpose. With the peak of hurricane season nearly upon us, this revelation should spur state leaders into immediate action to avoid a repeat of past tragedies.

State lawmakers approved stricter rules earlier this year after 15 deaths followed the evacuation of more than 800 residents from seven southeast Louisiana nursing homes for Hurricane Ida last August. Owner Bob Dean had his licenses pulled for those facilities and now faces lawsuits over the squalid conditions at a Tangipahoa Parish warehouse where the residents were taken to ride out the storm.

State officials are now taking a closer look at the disaster plans. The 94 nursing homes in Louisiana’s most vulnerable parishes had until March to submit their evacuation intentions to state officials for hurricane season 2022. Sixteen homes planned to use facilities that didn’t pass muster with state inspectors. 

Officials notified nursing homes that submitted substandard evacuation sites and recommended they not be used. At least one has altered its plans. Ferncrest Manor Living Center in New Orleans had contracted with Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in Tangipahoa Parish since 2006, but they backed out of the deal after the campground and RV park earned a poor review from the health department. Water inside building entrances, inadequate restroom facilities and a mice infestation were among the shortcomings.

But technically, there’s nothing the state can do under its new regulations to prevent Ferncrest Manor from relocating its 114 residents to Jellystone Park in the event of a hurricane. The same goes for Cypress Park Junior High School in Pearl River, which five nursing homes have designated as their evacuation spot. State inspections found the school gym isn’t structurally sound enough to withstand a strong hurricane.

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A new law with tougher standards for nursing home evacuation plans doesn’t take effect until next year. The legislation was proposed after the Dean evacuation debacle revealed that no state agency had previously taken responsibility for approving emergency hurricane plans. While that deficiency was addressed, it still leaves the elderly and infirm in jeopardy for the current hurricane season.

An attorney with the Louisiana Department of Health told the Illuminator the agency will keep a close eye on nursing homes that use unlicensed evacuation centers against their recommendation. If anything goes wrong, the nursing home could risk losing its license.

This hardly brings comfort to anyone concerned after last year’s tragedy in Tangipahoa Parish, but it should come as no surprise in a state that has a history of hesitancy when it comes to nursing home accountability. 

The nursing home lobby is a powerful force in Louisiana politics, as evidenced by other changes from this year’s legislative session. The same law that requires more thorough disaster planning also increased the industry’s representation on the state’s Nursing Home Emergency Preparedness Review Committee. The panel was all but defunct before Dean’s alleged misdoings brought it back to life. It will be an influential voice in shaping future legislation involving eldercare operations.   

Plus, Gov. John Bel Edwards initially went along with an effort to keep post-disaster reports from nursing homes secret before pulling the proposal under public pressure.  

With the lives of some of our most vulnerable residents at stake, it’s simply not acceptable for the state to wait for a problem to occur rather than prevent it from occurring in the first place. 

We would encourage the governor and other state leaders to summon nursing home owners who plan to go against health department recommendations. A solution must be reached that doesn’t put evacuees in harm’s way or add any unnecessary stress to an already stressful situation.

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Greg LaRose
Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg's other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.

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