Nursing home deaths spawn A/C legislation

July 28, 2000
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Sunrise Assisted Living resident Eva DeCapite enjoys independence and comfort by being able to use an operable thermostat.
The recent deaths of three elderly residents of a Burlingame, CA nursing home facility has prompted California Con-gressman Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo County) to introduce legislation to require air conditioning in nursing home facilities which receive Medicare or Medicaid funding.

H.R. 4898 amends the Social Security Act to add the requirement for air conditioning to the specifications which nursing homes must meet to be eligible for federal funds. Because Medicare and Medicaid provide a major portion of the funding for many patients at nursing homes around the country, this legislation will require virtually all such facilities to have air conditioning.

“It is an absolute outrage that elderly people in nursing homes die because it’s too hot,” said Lantos. “If the operators of these profit-making facilities are not willing to assure humane conditions for the elderly living there, they will not receive federal funds.”

Senior assisted-living facilities offer quality-of-life amenities in comfortable, sometimes plush, surroundings — and opportunities for hvac contractors.

Too costly?

In an interview with The News, Greg Johnston, spokesperson for the Sun Healthcare Group, owner of the SunBridge Care and Rehabilitation Home in Burlingame, said Lantos proposed a solution to the home’s a/c problems, but it was too costly: “$500,000 is too much to pay,” he said. “We [Sun HealthCare] are under bankruptcy protection and need to find a new, cost-effective solution to the problem.

“When this facility was built back in the 60s, there was no need to design an a/c system. It never gets that hot. But back in June it was up to 106°F over a two- to three-day period. Our doctors reported that two of the three victims died from existing health problems and the other one died from heat stroke.”

The deaths occurred a week after the release of a report prepared for Lantos and other members of the Bay Area Congressional delegation, which reported that only 6% of the Bay-area nursing homes were in “substantial non-compliance” with federal standards, and whose violations “caused actual harm to residents or placed them at risk of death or serious injury.”

“The need for air conditioning is not just a California problem,” Lantos told his colleagues. “The heat wave affecting much of the southern states has been blamed for the deaths of at least 12 people in Texas and four in Louisiana.”

Bob King, spokesperson for Lantos, added that, “This legislation will be a boon for air conditioning contractors.”

Federal resources

Most, if not all, federally funded nursing facilities have to weigh extremely tight budgets against quality-of-care issues. Additional legislation may help provide additional funding that could help pay for air conditioning installations.

House Democrats introduced a bill on July 25 that would subject nursing homes to harsher penalties for violating federal health and safety standards. Homes would also be guaranteed higher payments.

The “Nursing Home Quality of Care Improvement Act” will impose sanctions ranging from $2,000 for violations that have a potential to harm residents, to $25,000 for violations that place residents in immediate danger. These fines would be placed into a fund that would be paid back out in the form of grants to help facilities increase staff and institute other quality improvements.

Additional opportunities

The aging of the Baby Boomer population means more facilities will be built for assisted living, not just nursing homes. These assisted-living facilities typically do not accept Medicare/Medicaid patients. However, although they are private-pay “residences,” payments by residents or family members are tax deductable, sometimes as medical expenses.

One such group, Sunrise Assisted Living, McLean, VA, has 128 facilities in 22 states, and 38 additional facilities under construction. Residents have physical and/or cognitive impairments. However, no matter their condition, the facility’s goal is to provide residents with as much independence, comfort, individuality, and dignity as possible.

A large part of that independence is to provide individual comfort control in each of the facility’s apartments, each of which has a kitchen, bathroom, living room, bedroom, and an operable, easy-to use thermostat. Each floor of the facility also has a spa room with heating lamps and appropriate ventilation. (A Sunrise facility’s hvac system and the contractor who installed it will be profiled in an upcoming issue of The News.)

Contractors looking to increase their revenues could look into facilities such as these not only for new construction opportunities, but also for service/maintenance contracts.

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