A top state health official tasked with overseeing nursing home admissions has parted ways with the Louisiana Department of Health, as questions swirl over the agency's role in the deadly evacuation of hundreds of nursing home residents ahead of Hurricane Ida.
Earlier this week, the health department removed Fernando Lopez-Evangelio as assistant secretary for the Office of Aging and Adult Services on its publicly available organizational chart. His interim replacement is Elizabeth Adkins.
Details of Lopez-Evangelio's separation remain unclear. A health department spokesperson said the agency doesn't discuss personnel matters, and Lopez-Evangelio could not be reached for comment.
The Office of Aging and Adult Services processes admission requests for nursing homes statewide.
The change in leadership comes as the department faces mounting scrutiny over its role in vetting nursing home evacuation plans. Ahead of Hurricane Ida, nursing home owner Bob Dean moved nearly 850 residents from seven facilities into a former pesticide warehouse in Independence.
Residents described sleeping on the floor on soggy mattresses and languishing for days in soiled diapers. Dozens of evacuees were hospitalized as conditions at the makeshift shelter devolved into crisis.
At least 15 of the residents have since died, and five of those deaths have been classified as storm-related, meaning their deaths are tied to the botched evacuation.
State inspectors who visited the facility daily – and gave it a thumbs up before residents arrived – documented a worsening crisis and finally evacuated the facility over Dean's protests. Since then, the Louisiana Department of Health has moved to revoke Dean’s seven nursing-home licenses and terminate his Medicaid provider agreements, though Dean's attorney has said he will appeal and expects to win the licenses back.
State lawmakers grew visibly frustrated on Friday as health department officials dodged questions over how the agency screens nursing home's evacuation plans. The department's top lawyer, Stephen Russo, cited attorney-client privilege, a lawsuit filed by a resident against the department over the evacuation plan and state investigations while declining to answer several questions.
Andrew Muhl, associate state director with AARP Louisiana, said he was aware that Lopez-Evangelio was no longer with the department.
"It is extremely important to us and to seniors in Louisiana that the department hires someone with experience with older adults in this leadership position," Muhl said.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated that the head of the Office of Adult and Aging Services is tasked with overseeing nursing homes in Louisiana. The department instead processes admission requests for nursing homes statewide.