AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the weeks and months following February’s winter storm, lawmakers have filed several bills to address problems that led to days-long power outages across Texas. The latest push focuses on keeping power and heat on for vulnerable seniors in long-term care facilities.

State Representative Ed Thompson (R-Pearland) filed House Bill 2325 to require nursing and assisted-living facilities have a generator or another comparable backup power supply on-site in preparation for future weather events or blackouts.

Dozens of senior living facilities were forced to evacuate residents during Winter Storm Uri, according to data presented to the Texas House’s Human Services committee on Tuesday.

“We know of assisted living residents who had to go to homeless shelters for their evacuation sites,” said the state’s Long-term Care Ombudsman Patty Ducayet.

She testified in favor of the bill, noting that 56 assisted living facilities were forced to evacuate their residents, while nine assisted living facilities had backup power supplies that allowed them to stay in place. There are just over 2,000 assisted living facilities in the state. Comparatively, Ducayet said her data showed 27 skilled nursing facilities evacuated residents, while 176 relied on generators to keep their power on. There are more than 1,220 nursing facilities registered in the state.

Thompson told committee members he had been working on the legislation since 2019, but these challenges that came to light during this storm make it more urgent than ever.

“For the benefit of all Texans, it must be done. Lives depend on it,” Rep. Thompson said.

Still, Rep. Candy Noble (R-Allen) questioned Thompson about the logistics of implementing requirements like this at facilities of different sizes and in different locations. She also offered insight from personal experience.

“Ours cost about $10,000 just for our little home. I can’t even imagine the cost for a large nursing facility or what it would take to run a generator for 72 hours if you don’t have the ability to run a propane tank” she said. “Some cities don’t allow propane tanks.”

Committee Chair Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls) agreed, noting, “‘Who pays?’ is the real question.”

Several industry leaders and nursing home operators testified against the bill, with the cost of the generators being the primary concern.

Caraday Healthcare owns 13 nursing homes in the state. Their Vice President of Facilities and Construction, Doug Bray, estimated generators required by this bill would cost any where from $200,000 to $500,000 per facility. Additionally, he said re-wiring older facilities to meet these proposed requirements would pose additional costs, while “disrupting the lives of thousands” of residents.

“I agree with its intent to protect those who cannot protect themselves,” he said. “But in its current wording, it may cause more harm than good.”

Leah Gage, Administrator at San Gabriel Rehabilitation & Care Center in Round Rock, also expressed her concerns. She told lawmakers she was proud of how her facility weathered the storm, but she worried about the impact the heavy costs required in this bill would have on facilities like hers.

“These costs do not take into account the issue of lack of space to locate these massive generators or fuel storage tanks on some smaller, older properties,” she said.

Instead, Gage offered several alternative solutions:

  • Have the bill only apply to skilled nursing facilities with building permits issued after August 31, 2023
  • Change the language in the bill to require only selected areas or rooms in the facility to meet this requirement
  • Require 24 to 48 hours worth of fuel to be stored on-site, instead of 72 due to limitations on fuel storage at many facilities
  • Require these changes be funded by the state, instead of added to the Medicaid cost report

Rep. Thompson said he’d be willing to work with the facility operators to find a feasible solution.

“This is a difficult bill: one that we knew was going to be a heavy lift, and one that was going to be controversial,” he said. “I just, in good conscious, can’t say it’s not worth it.”

He told his fellow lawmakers about similar laws already in place in Maryland and Florida.

“Their example shows that it can be done, and for the benefit of all Texans, it must be done. Lives depend on it,” he said.