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Nursing Home Records Dispute Ratchets Up

May 16, 2018
Originally published on May 16, 2018 1:35 am

In the latest twist in months of legal battling after Hurricane Irma, an embattled Broward County nursing home has accused the Florida Department of Health of not properly complying with a judge’s order to turn over public records.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis is scheduled Monday to hold a hearing on arguments by attorneys for The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills that the department should be held in contempt in the records dispute, according to an online docket and court records.

The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills has faced months of scrutiny and a state move to revoke its license after residents died following Hurricane Irma. The Sept. 10 storm knocked out the nursing home’s air-conditioning system, creating sweltering conditions that led to the evacuation of residents on Sept. 13. Authorities have attributed 12 deaths to the problems at the nursing home.

The nursing home and the state have been locked in a legal battle about the license revocation and other issues, and The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills filed a public-records lawsuit Jan. 31, alleging that the department had improperly refused to provide copies of death certificates for people across the state from Sept. 9 through Sept. 16 --- a week-long period that included Hurricane Irma and its immediate aftermath.

Court documents have not spelled out why the nursing home wants the death certificates, but Lewis last month said the death certificates are public records and should be provided by the state.

“The records requested by petitioner (the nursing home) are subject to Florida’s Public Record Act … and there is no applicable statutory exemption to permit their withholding from release,” Lewis wrote.

But in a document filed last week, attorneys for The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills alleged that the Department of Health had not properly complied with Lewis’ order.

“Despite a final judgment ordering DOH to comply with Hollywood Hills’ public records request, DOH is delaying, attempting to charge illegal fees and otherwise intentionally refusing to comply with this court’s mandate,” the document said. “As such, this court should find DOH in contempt and order the records be produced immediately.”

In part, the nursing home objected to a May 7 invoice from the department for $5,928, including $5,907 for “review & redaction” of the records. The nursing home contends that there is not a need to review and redact information from the death certificates, a process that the invoice indicates would require 492.25 hours.

The court docket Tuesday morning did not include a response from the department. But in objecting to the original public-records request, the department contended that the large request fell under part of state law dealing with “vital records or data.” It said the nursing home’s request didn’t meet legal standards for releasing such information.

“Whereas anyone may request and receive a redacted death certificate (under part of state law), only certain people and entities may receive the type of general data that would allow research to be conducted,” the department argued in a March motion to dismiss the case. “Such data … is far more broad than simply one or two specifically requested death certificates. The only possible purpose for this subsection (of law) is to regulate who may obtain large swaths of data derived from death certificates and other such records.” The motion said the nursing home is “not the type of entity which may receive this data.”