FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Even though Albertina Vega is dead and the sweltering nursing home where she died is shut down, the facility still billed her on what would have been her 100th birthday.
Vega, 99, was one of 14 deceased residents of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills where the central air conditioning failed during Hurricane Irma.
Carmen Fernandez, the wife of Vega's cousin, said she went to the bank to close Vega's account only to learn there was no money in it. Instead, there was an automatic payment of $958 to Hollywood Hills that resulted in an overdraft fee.
The shock of it was magnified by the fact that the payment was posted on Oct. 10, the day Vega would have become a centenarian had she not perished in the stifling nursing home.
"How are they going to charge a dead person?" Fernandez said, in disbelief. "How is she going to pay that?"
"I was enraged. They let her die and then they bill her," she said. "This was someone who was like a mother to me."
Fernandez is still trying to recover the money but could not reach the Hollywood, Florida, nursing home in recent days, she said.
Relatives -- some flying in from as far as California -- had planned to celebrate Vega's birthday by toasting with her favorite Manhattan cocktail.
Instead Fernandez walked over to the memorial of poster boards and ceramic angels for each dead nursing home resident lined up in front of the facility.
She placed a plastic cup filled with a Manhattan cocktail among the angels and sprinkled the drink on the memorial. She left flowers too.
"This one's for you, Albertina," Fernandez said. "I had promised it for her birthday."
Fernandez said she has lodged a complaint with the bank manager and showed him proof from the funeral home of her death. She wondered whether the nursing home billed Medicaid for the government's portion of the bill.
Whether Vega's is an isolated case is unclear. The state's Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates nursing homes, would not comment on whether Hollywood Hills billed Medicaid after the facility was shut down or whether, like Vega, other deceased victims or residents who survived had been billed.
"The agency cannot comment on any inquiries related to a specific recipient due to federal and state privacy laws," said Shelisha Coleman, an agency spokeswoman. "The facility in question was suspended from the Medicaid program in September and therefore cannot charge Medicaid either directly or through Medicaid health plans."
Nursing home attorneys could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Vega was the first of the victims who died Sept. 13 inside the overheated facility or at Memorial Regional Hospital across the street. The eight residents who died that day were living on the second floor of the nursing home, which had no functioning air conditioning for three days.
Six more nursing home residents died in later days. Police are still considering them part of the caseload of deaths linked to the sweltering conditions inside Hollywood Hills.
Hollywood police and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have launched a criminal investigation into the deaths.
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