DETROIT, MI - Following the heat-related deaths of three residents of the Northland Nursing Center during a mid-June heat wave here, a Michigan state senator has introduced legislation that would require all nursing homes in the state to have air conditioning.

On July 10, State Senator George Hart (D-Dearborn) presented his bill, which mandates that facilities have air conditioning for residents' rooms and common areas by June 1, 2002.

About 400 of the state's approximately 450 nursing homes do not have air conditioning. In the case of this particular home, it did have an A/C system, but it was not operating.

According to a report from Michigan's Department of Consumer and Industry Services, during a June 13 to 15 heat wave, high temperatures for those three days were 87°, 89°, and 90°F. However, the Northland Nursing Center's air conditioning system needed repairs and those repairs weren't scheduled until June 18.

Early on the morning of June 15, the facility's owner reported that two residents had died overnight. When informed that the air conditioning wasn't functioning, state officials told the operator to repair and turn on the A/C immediately.

The report noted that when investigators arrived that day, "Temperatures on the first floor exceeded 88°F. Temperatures on the second floor exceeded 90°F." Some resident rooms had fans, but others had no fans.

Beginning on June 14 through 15, nine residents had to be sent to the hospital. A total of three died who "exhibited symptoms related to the oppressive heat in the building," the report stated. Medical records show these individuals had body temperatures of up to 107°. Four of the other hospitalized residents "exhibited symptoms related to the heat."

Service on the air conditioning system began about 2:00 p.m. on June 15, and the system was repaired and functioning at 8:37 p.m., noted the report. The residents noticed the cool air flowing and by the next day comfortable temperatures were restored.

Based on its findings of immediate jeopardy to the residents, the state recommended to the federal Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA) a fine of $15,000, or $5,000 a day.

The owner of Northland Nursing Center, Bob Malott, disputes the state's findings and has appealed. He told the Detroit Free Press that his staff purchased additional fans on June 14, and that they worked to provide residents with ice and water. He also said that he will schedule air conditioning maintenance earlier next year.

It was unclear why Malott did not use the money for additional fans to repair his A/C system, and why he didn't move up the repair date until he was ordered to do so by the state.

The state's Attorney General is investigating the nursing home as well. A spokeswoman for the agency confirmed that there is an active investigation, but said that she could not comment any further. The Attorney General's office can look into such things as fraud and abuse.

Advocacy groups for improved nursing home care say that heat waves have been a regular problem. In April, four residents of a nursing home in St. Louis, MO died during a heat wave.

Of the Northland Nursing Center deaths, Senator Hart said, "I want to stop it from happening again."

Publication date: 07/16/2001