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As Florida nursing home residents died, operators raked in federal handouts

Ben Wieder, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

MIAMI -- Heather Williams knew on April 28 that her mom, 63-year-old Sarita Redmond, had tested positive for COVID-19. But the Southern Oaks Care Center, which had become a petri dish of infection, would tell Williams nothing more.

Call after call to the Pensacola nursing home went unanswered, Williams said. And a state executive order intended to protect elders in long-term care barred her from visiting her mother.

Williams asked local police to make a welfare check in mid-May. The Pensacola Police Department told her that COVID-19 restrictions forbid that, too.

"I didn't know what else I could do," Williams said.

The day before Williams learned that her mother had COVID-19, Southern Oaks reported that 92 residents and 15 employees at the 210-bed facility had tested positive for the virus -- the most cases of any nursing home in the state at that point.

It's one of a number of troubled Florida facilities connected to Eliezer Scheiner, a New York nursing home operator who has made headlines for the poor quality of care in his homes in other states, although the connections are obscured in records. He is also known for his fundraising for President Donald Trump.

 

Nursing homes, which rely almost exclusively on state and federal payments from Medicaid and Medicare, are heavy political spenders and not shy about flexing that political muscle. As COVID-19 has led to more than 150,000 cases and more than 40,000 deaths nationwide in nursing homes, owners have pushed for immunity from lawsuits stemming from their handling of the virus. That is despite the fact that problems at some homes predate the virus and that industry insiders acknowledge many nursing homes didn't have sufficient infection controls to stop the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19.

While they've had mixed success in winning immunity, nursing homes have gotten nearly $10 billion in federal funds from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services to help offset COVID-19 costs.

Late last year, Scheiner organized a fundraiser that brought in roughly $3 million to support Trump's re-election bid, giving $750,000 himself.

"I want to thank Eli Scheiner for doing such an incredible job," Trump said at last year's fundraiser.

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