Zurik: Political contributions and the power of the nursing home industry

Published: Nov. 3, 2021 at 10:00 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - As lawmakers vow to push changes following the evacuation of more than 850 nursing home residents to a warehouse to ride out Hurricane Ida, one former lawmaker cautions that change is not easy in the industry.

Conrad Appel, a state senator from 2008-2020, says the nursing home industry has great power in the state of Louisiana, largely due to its use of campaign contributions.

Nursing homes are among the most generous campaign contributors in state elections.

“To a lot of people they mean a lot, to others, they mean an opportunity just to be heard,” Appel said. “I would like to think that most of them perceive it as a contribution. It’s just a way to say, we want to be able to talk to you. But unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of people in the legislature that look to those as lifelines for their campaigns.”

FOX 8 examined hundreds of campaign finance reports for the last four years and compiled a list of contributions by nursing homes -- looking at the homes themselves, connected businesses, and owners. The data showed that in four years, the industry contributed $3.2 Million to state elections.

“That’s a lot. That’s a lot of money,” Appel said. “I suspect if you were to look at the total dollars contributed, you’d find perhaps only the trial lawyers exceeding that amount. I can’t think of any other organization or organized group that would have or could contribute that kind of money.”

Over the last four years, the most money, $683,000, went to Governor John Bel Edwards and his political action committee. That included several donations from Bob Dean, the owner of the seven nursing homes that evacuated to a warehouse in Independence, La. to ride out Hurricane Ida. The residents of those homes complained of inhumane conditions at the warehouse with nearly 850 residents having access to a few portable toilets. Patients also described requiring oxygen, but having no access to it and food was also limited to the residents at the facility. The Louisiana Department of Health revoked the licenses of the seven homes.

In 2007, Bob Dean stopped donating to state campaigns, but that changed twelve years later in 2019.

In September 2019, Dean made three separate campaign contributions to Daniel Edwards, the Sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, where the warehouse is located. Dean then made contributions over the next thirty days using companies he is associated with to make contributions to the sheriff’s brother, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards. Those donations totaled $67,500.

It is not clear why Dean stopped contributions to political campaigns in 2007 and resumed in 2019 and why he resumed only donating to the Governor and his brother.

A spokesperson for Governor John Bel Edwards did not address the campaign contributions directly but did say, “The Governor has demanded and will ensure a complete investigation by law enforcement, including Louisiana State Police, and health officials to hold accountable those responsible for this tragic situation.”

When asked about the campaign contributions, Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards said, “As Sheriff, I am the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of Tangipahoa Parish. This in no way includes any role in the application or approval process of an evacuation plan by a nursing home to the Louisiana Department of Health. Prior to Hurricane Ida, neither in my capacity as Sheriff nor in my capacity as a private citizen had I ever spoken with or communicated with anyone, including Mr. Dean or my brother, the Governor, about the subject evacuation plan application or its approval.”

Critics say the state has taken a hands-off approach to the emergency evacuation plans of nursing homes.

Former State Senator Appel said the approach extends to the entire industry and wonders if the political contributions play a role in that.

“Governor Jindal did the exact same thing. I’m not criticizing any particular governor. I’m just suggesting that no governors have done what is necessary, R (Republican) or D (Democrat),” he said.

Attorneys representing residents of the nursing homes wonder if that hands-off approach might have contributed to the deaths of nursing home residents after Hurricane Ida.

On Sept. 7, FOX 8 asked the Louisiana Department of Health when it approved the emergency plan for the seven nursing homes owned by Bob Dean, but the department has yet to release that information.

In 2019, six of the seven Dean nursing homes submitted documents to the state, alerting them that the warehouse could be used as a shelter. In 2021, Dean’s nursing homes told the state the warehouse had beds for up to 700 residents.

State leaders would not elaborate on the approval process of those plans but instead referred us to Louisiana Administrative Code related to nursing homes.

Attorney for the nursing homes’ owner, John McLindon, said the Louisiana Department of Health approved the plans part of a plan that is submitted by each facility to the parish and state. The state never questioned the use of the warehouse before Hurricane Ida.

The Louisiana Department of Health has regulations that set policies and oversight for emergency plans and has the ability to change those rules, but so far, has not said it will.

Lawmakers have indicated they may step in and force a change.

State Senator Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, said he expects there to be several bills filed in response to the Tangipahoa Parish warehouse incident.

“Legislators absolutely need to step in and take this on,” he said. “And I think you’re going to see a flurry of legislation filed in the spring that deals with this and other things related to that [oversight].

“I think having oversight, having transparency and who is ultimately responsible and can determine was that a good choice or wasn’t it,” Talbot said.

Brandon Aubert’s mother was one of the 800 residents in the warehouse.

“I keep myself up at night a lot about it and I wonder what could I have done myself if I knew you know, that’s the real guilt,” Aubert said.

Aubert’s mother lived at the Maison Orleans facility in Uptown New Orleans, a Bob Dean-owned nursing home. Aubert said the evacuation and post-storm move took a toll on his mother’s health. Aubert said before his mother died, she lost more than 13 pounds in a week and a half.

Critics say some state leaders let campaign contributions limit oversight of nursing homes.

“I feel they [the state] should [do better],” Aubert said. “It’s just mandatory human decency to want to have somebody in a better situation.”

Nursing home evacuations have been a constant trouble area for the State of Louisiana with problems in Hurricane Katrina and even before that in 1998 during Hurricane Georges and the evacuation of a Bob Dean-owned nursing home.

Aubert hopes Hurricane Ida is the last storm that puts the most vulnerable in an even more vulnerable position.

“I would think that there would be some kind of situation that after Katrina we would have a contingency plan to have this well thought out plan so if there is a storm, this is what we’re going to do and apparently they did but I wouldn’t think it would be a warehouse. I’m just appalled at the whole situation, to be honest.”

FOX 8 reached out to the Louisiana Nursing Home Association for a comment on this story but received no response.

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