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Liability

Nursing Home Downfalls: What Happens When Evacuations Are Delayed

For facilities entrusted with the lives of vulnerable populations, emergency preparedness plans are complex documents that never stop evolving.
By: | December 14, 2017 • 9 min read

A nightmarish scene unfolded in Port Arthur, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey. Law enforcement and volunteer teams forcibly evacuated a flooded nursing home that waited too long past the window of opportunity to launch a safe evacuation.

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Not even two weeks later, amid the chaos of Hurricane Irma, another crisis was brewing at a nursing home in Hollywood Hills, Fla. This time though, help didn’t arrive in time. Eight vulnerable residents died after a few days in the sweltering facility with no power. Six more died of related complications in the weeks that followed.

The latter facility has since been shut down, and the operators of both facilities are facing serious scrutiny from law enforcement as well as regulatory agencies. It’s no surprise multiple lawsuits are already in process.

Yet neither of these incidents is entirely isolated. There are long-term care facilities across the country that, in the event of a disaster, could be one questionable decision or one poorly executed procedure away from finding themselves publicly pilloried.

Crisis management in skilled nursing facilities and long-term care facilities is an incredibly complex endeavor that takes the cooperation of risk management, the executive suite, vendors, suppliers and community partnerships.

Fortunately, there are a great many resources available to help nursing and long-term care facilities ensure their ability to protect patients and residents as well as staff members.

The Plan’s the Thing

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) published an updated rule in 2016, “Emergency Preparedness Requirements for Medicare and Medicaid Participating Providers and Suppliers.” Health care providers, including nursing and long-term care facilities, were required to be in compliance with the new rule as of Nov. 15 of this year.

Diane Doherty, senior vice president, Chubb Healthcare

So while facilities already had disaster plans in place, CMS set the bar a notch higher and formalized certain aspects of emergency preparedness planning for the health care industry.

“Without a doubt the rule represents new challenges to long-term care organizations due to the sheer amount of work related to complying with the regulation and the preparation involved,” said Diane Doherty, senior vice president, Chubb Healthcare. But Doherty said she feels confident that most facilities were able to meet the Nov. 15 deadline.

Still, there can be a significant gap between a facility that’s meeting minimum compliance requirements and a facility that’s genuinely ready to weather a storm or a sudden fire.

The foundation of a strong preparedness plan, experts agree, is a comprehensive hazard vulnerability assessment, or HVA, which looks at every type of emergency or disaster a facility might face and carefully addresses how each scenario might impact a location’s ability to keep its residents and employees safe, both during an emergency and in the days and weeks that follow.

The assessment helps pinpoint the services a facility will need by “identifying residents who require additional assistance — the wheelchair-bound, the bed-bound, the residents on ventilators,” said Doherty. This includes residents with dementia as well as those who simply need assistance ambulating.

“If you didn’t ask the right questions and don’t have the right information, it is hard to make a decision about the patient lives that are in your building.” — Scott Aronson, Director, Strategy & Business Development – Healthcare, RPA

Assessment best practices should include the help of community partners such as law enforcement and local emergency management and health department officials, said Scott Aronson, Director, Strategy & Business Development – Healthcare for RPA, a JENSEN HUGHES Company. RPA is an emergency management firm and technology provider serving the health care industry.

By engaging community resources, said Aronson, “you will at least know what they feel the threat is to your buildings and to your patients and to your infrastructure — of either getting resources in to you or getting you out of there — or whether your building will be able to stand up to the hazards.”

The quality of the assessment is key, said Aronson, because that information will help prioritize planning and support how decisions will be made during a crisis.

“If you didn’t ask the right questions and don’t have the right information, it is hard to make a decision about the patient lives that are in your building.”

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For the same reason, said Aronson, organizations can’t expect their state or local government to tell them what to do in a crisis. Municipalities aren’t typically inclined to order an evacuation except in extreme situations. It’s up to each facility’s incident command team to make decisions based on the information directly in hand.

Whether the decision in the moment is to shelter-in-place or evacuate, an organization’s vendor and supplier network is a significant piece of the emergency planning puzzle.

Transportation arrangements and sheltering agreements with receiving facilities must be in place in the event of an evacuation. Fuel, water and other supplies may be needed in other circumstances. Getting it right often means having a plan B — or even a plan C.

Risk managers need to look at the larger picture — their primary and contingency vendors as well as their vendors’ contingency arrangements.

“If your fuel supply is local, for example, then do you have a contingency? Are they part of a national company where they have other resources they can bring in from other locations?” said Rick Maltz, senior director of resident services and risk management at Erickson Living, home to more than 24,000 seniors in 11 states.

Marcia Price, Erickson Living’s vice president of operations and risk management, added, “Sometimes it is necessary to make a judgment call when determining the right contract partner. You may see a vendor and it seems great — maybe the pricing’s a little lower. But if it’s a local vendor, you have to think about [your contingency plan in] an emergency. It may be better to go with a national vendor who can always provide for you.

“However, if you’re going to use a local vendor, have a backup plan or a backup contract so that you give yourself some options.”

The drawback with back-up vendors though, Price cautioned, is if you’re not a high-use client, you may not be at the top of their priority list.

Having the right supplies in the right places is a strength of Erickson’s. As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the Northeast, Erickson trucked fuel in from Florida and kept the truck parked at one of its facilities.

When nobody else in the area had fuel, they were able to keep the facility’s generator topped off and also provided fuel for employees’ cars.

New approaches are being developed that can significantly expand options for facilities and organizations of every size. More than 1,000 southern New England facilities signed on to Mutual Aid, a technology platform developed by RPA. The platform is designed to enable facilities to support each other in the event of a disaster.

Mutual Aid is a powerful tool to amplify the resources of every member facility. “They will actually deploy each other’s vendors to help the other,” explained RPA’s Aronson. “Or they’ll send their own resources and assets to help the other.”

Even for large corporate groups, such a network of support can play a massive role in terms of rapid response. A hurricane enables the advance deployment of resources, but most other disasters don’t.

“A lot of the other things corporate groups may just not be prepared for — tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires — you can’t just plop resources down in the middle of that,” said Aronson. “You have to rely on existing partnerships in the community, in the region, and in the greater state to help you out.”

Continuous Improvement

Training and testing of the emergency preparedness plan is essential. It’s never enough to just tick off a checklist, experts agree.

“You can check the boxes pretty easily, but did you actually learn anything? And will it benefit you in the future?” said Aronson. “It’s critical that they really do it and not just go through the 10-minute motions. They have to learn from that exercise and improve their plans and training going forward.”

Marcia Price, vice president of operations and risk management, Erickson Living

At Erickson Living, disaster preparedness messages are woven into the company’s broader safety education program, including department-specific safety talks, monthly town hall meetings and annual compliance training.

But it’s the drills that really test both the plan itself and each facility’s ability to execute it successfully.  Drills simulate how each person might react under the pressure of a real-life crisis and help identify opportunities for improvement.

“It really helps [the facilities] train their teams on what is expected. We think that’s an important piece of being able to train people on how you handle an emergency,” said Price.

In addition, she said, it’s a chance to work with local emergency responders and solidify those relationships and expectations long before a crisis occurs.

Both Maltz and Price said that each drill and each actual incident help identify gaps. Any unexpected wrinkle is an opportunity to update the plan in order to be better prepared for the next event. “A couple of the things we learned from Harvey we took to Irma,” noted Maltz.

Price added, “Our program is based on continuous learning; it’s not an annual event because this is a living document, and we keep updating it and we keep making sure that we’re improving on it.”

Free Resources

From a coverage perspective, property and business interruption policies are essential for nursing and long-term care facilities, as are workers’ comp, medical professional liability, general liability and D&O.

But carriers have more to offer their long-term care clients, said Doherty.

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“I think it’s important for [long-term care facilities] to partner with a carrier that’s going to help them meet these challenges head on, whether it’s assisting with conducting the risk assessment or providing education to their staff,” she said.

There’s a wealth of other resources out there for organizations to avail themselves of, and much of it is free.

The Nursing Home Incident Command System (NHICS) was developed in California and can be downloaded for free, said Aronson. It’s one of a large trove of free resources found at ASPR TRACIE, a double-whammy acronym for the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response and Technical Resources, Assistance Center and Information Exchange.

Other free materials can be found on the websites of FEMA and the department of Health and Human Services. Numerous professional associations as well as state and federal websites offer free resources to help meet the latest CMS requirements.

“Long-term care facilities are under constant pressure to do more with less,” said Doherty. “Those that prepare and practice and train for that inevitable catastrophe — they really reduce the chances of debilitating losses while strengthening their ability to safely care for this fragile and vulnerable population.” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

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Risk Focus: Workers' Comp

Do You Have Employees or Gig Workers?

The number of gig economy workers is growing in the U.S. But their classification as contractors leaves many without workers’ comp, unemployment protection or other benefits.
By: and | July 30, 2018 • 5 min read

A growing number of Americans earn their living in the gig economy without employer-provided benefits and protections such as workers’ compensation.

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With the proliferation of on-demand services powered by digital platforms, questions surrounding who does and does not actually work in the gig economy continue to vex stakeholders. Courts and legislators are being asked to decide what constitutes an employee and what constitutes an independent contractor, or gig worker.

The issues are how the worker is paid and who controls the work process, said Bobby Bollinger, a North Carolina attorney specializing in workers’ compensation law with a client roster in the trucking industry.

The common law test, he said, the same one the IRS uses, considers “whose tools and whose materials are used. Whether the employer is telling the worker how to do the job on a minute-to-minute basis. Whether the worker is paid by the hour or by the job. Whether he’s free to work for someone else.”

Legal challenges have occurred, starting with lawsuits against transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft. Several court cases in recent years have come down on the side of allowing such companies to continue classifying drivers as independent contractors.

Those decisions are significant for TNCs, because the gig model relies on the lower labor cost of independent contractors. Classification as an employee adds at least 30 percent to labor costs.

The issues lie with how a worker is paid and who controls the work process. — Bobby Bollinger, a North Carolina attorney

However, a March 2018 California Supreme Court ruling in a case involving delivery drivers for Dynamex went the other way. The Dynamex decision places heavy emphasis on whether the worker is performing a core function of the business.

Under the Dynamex court’s standard, an electrician called to fix a wiring problem at an Uber office would be considered a general contractor. But a driver providing rides to customers would be part of the company’s central mission and therefore an employee.

Despite the California ruling, a Philadelphia court a month later declined to follow suit, ruling that Uber’s limousine drivers are independent contractors, not employees. So a definitive answer remains elusive.

A Legislative Movement

Misclassification of workers as independent contractors introduces risks to both employers and workers, said Matt Zender, vice president, workers’ compensation product manager, AmTrust.

“My concern is for individuals who believe they’re covered under workers’ compensation, have an injury, try to file a claim and find they’re not covered.”

Misclassifying workers opens a “Pandora’s box” for employers, said Richard R. Meneghello, partner, Fisher Phillips.

Issues include tax liabilities, claims for minimum wage and overtime violations, workers’ comp benefits, civil labor law rights and wrongful termination suits.

The motive for companies seeking the contractor definition is clear: They don’t have to pay for benefits, said Meneghello. “But from a legal perspective, it’s not so easy to turn the workforce into contractors.”

“My concern is for individuals who believe they’re covered under workers’ compensation, have an injury, try to file a claim and find they’re not covered in the eyes of the state.” — Matt Zender, vice president, workers’ compensation product manager, AmTrust

It’s about to get easier, however. In 2016, Handy — which is being sued in five states for misclassification of workers — drafted a N.Y. bill to establish a program where gig-economy companies would pay 2.5 percent of workers’ income into individual health savings accounts, yet would classify them as independent contractors.

Unions and worker advocacy groups argue the program would rob workers of rights and protections. So Handy moved on to eight other states where it would be more likely to win.

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So far, the Handy bills have passed one house of the legislature in Georgia and Colorado; passed both houses in Iowa and Tennessee; and been signed into law in Kentucky, Utah and Indiana. A similar bill was also introduced in Alabama.

The bills’ language says all workers who find jobs through a website or mobile app are independent contractors, as long as the company running the digital platform does not control schedules, prohibit them from working elsewhere and meets other criteria. Two bills exclude transportation network companies such as Uber.

These laws could have far-reaching consequences. Traditional service companies will struggle to compete with start-ups paying minimal labor costs.

Opponents warn that the Handy bills are so broad that a service company need only launch an app for customers to contract services, and they’d be free to re-classify their employees as independent contractors — leaving workers without social security, health insurance or the protections of unemployment insurance or workers’ comp.

That could destabilize social safety nets as well as shrink available workers’ comp premiums.

A New Classification

Independent contractors need to buy their own insurance, including workers’ compensation. But many don’t, said Hart Brown, executive vice president, COO, Firestorm. They may not realize that in the case of an accident, their personal car and health insurance won’t engage, Brown said.

Matt Zender, vice president, workers’ compensation product manager, AmTrust

Workers’ compensation for gig workers can be hard to find. Some state-sponsored funds provide self-employed contractors’ coverage.  Policies can be expensive though in some high-risk occupations, such as roofing, said Bollinger.

The gig system, where a worker does several different jobs for several different companies, breaks down without portable benefits, said Brown. Portable benefits would follow workers from one workplace engagement to another.

What a portable benefits program would look like is unclear, he said, but some combination of employers, independent contractors and intermediaries (such as a digital platform business or staffing agency) would contribute to the program based on a percentage of each transaction.

There is movement toward portable benefits legislation. The Aspen Institute proposed portable benefits where companies contribute to workers’ benefits based on how much an employee works for them. Uber and SEI together proposed a portable benefits bill to the Washington State Legislature.

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Senator Mark Warner (D. VA) introduced the Portable Benefits for Independent Workers Pilot Program Act for the study of portable benefits, and Congresswoman Suzan DelBene (D. WA) introduced a House companion bill.

Meneghello is skeptical of portable benefits as a long-term solution. “They’re a good first step,” he said, “but they paper over the problem. We need a new category of workers.”

A portable benefits model would open opportunities for the growing Insurtech market. Brad Smith, CEO, Intuit, estimates the gig economy to be about 34 percent of the workforce in 2018, growing to 43 percent by 2020.

The insurance industry reinvented itself from a risk transfer mechanism to a risk management mechanism, Brown said, and now it’s reinventing itself again as risk educator to a new hybrid market. &

Susannah Levine writes about health care, education and technology. She can be reached at [email protected] Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]