State ombudsman launches investigation into HarborChase over Hurricane Irma surcharge

The state is questioning an assisted living company's decision to impose storm surcharges on its residents during Hurricane Irma.

State Ombudsman Mike Milliken of the Florida Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program has launched a formal investigation and condemned the $350 surcharge imposed by HarborChase, which has 16 Florida locations and a site on John Knox Road in Tallahassee. 

“We condemn, in the strongest terms, a surcharge placed on residents of facilities,” Milliken said, in a statement. The Ombudsman Program is a division of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs.

“When residents enter an assisted living facility, they sign a contract stating that they will be provided with a set of standard services, including on-site staffing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as well as meals and activities," Milliken continued. "These services must be provided rain or shine, hurricane or no hurricane."

The investigation comes one day after the Tallahassee Democrat detailed the charges and a letter from Karla Niethammer, executive director of HarborChase of Tallahassee, outlining the company's reason for the fee.

Milliken said residents should not be charged for services the facility would otherwise provide. The advocacy program has alerted the Agency for Health Care Administration, the state’s licensing and regulatory agency for long-term care facilities.

Attempts to reach Niethammer for comment regarding the investigation were unsuccessful.

However, Niethammer previously told the Democrat the cost associated with ensuring the safety of the residents was mostly absorbed by its staff. She said residents were charged "a minimal $350 surcharge which is stipulated in our Residency Agreement."

Monthly payments at HarborChase depend on a resident's level of care. For Brenda Popp's 88-year-old aunt, the cost is $6,000 per month. She was upset over the storm charge and said she had no knowledge of it until she received Niethammer's letter.

Popp called it "outrageous."

"It seems like it's a total disregard of client rights,” she said. "It costs a lot just to live there and then on top of that to receive a bill for $350 is just unfair."

HarborChase has more locations in Florida than it does in its locations in other states including Alabama, Texas, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan. 

The John Knox Road facility provides assisted living and memory care. It has a 98 percent occupancy rate for its 98 licensed beds, according to AHCA records. The company is headquartered in Vero Beach.

The storm surcharge triggered a wave of complaints and requests to reverse the policy. Throughout Florida, nursing homes are under scrutiny after the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills lost power during Hurricane Irma and 14 senior citizens died in the aftermath.  

According to the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, it advocates for the health, safety, welfare, and rights of individuals residing in long-term care settings.

"The program consistently empowers residents to know their rights and provides a voice for those who may not be able to speak up for themselves. All services are provided at no charge, and all complaints are confidential," the program said.

The Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program is encouraging residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities to send call the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program’s toll-free hotline at 1-888-831-0404 or email complaints to ltcopinformer@elderaffairs.org.

Contact TaMaryn Waters at tlwaters@tallahassee.com or follow @TaMarynWaters on Twitter. 

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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