WEST PALM BEACH — Federal officials said Wednesday they are probing the removal of the state's chief advocate for nursing home residents, who was let go after butting heads with the administration of Gov. Rick Scott.
The Administration on Aging will conduct the review into long-term care ombudsman Brian Lee's dismissal, and will take "all the steps we can to see that the law was followed," said agency spokeswoman Moya Thompson.
The ombudsman program acts as a nursing home watchdog and is funded with federal money under the Older Americans Act.
In a letter to Charles Corley, the secretary of the state Department of Elder Affairs, the Administration on Aging warned the job must be filled by someone with credibility among advocates for the elderly and disabled and untainted by conflicts of interest.
"We expect that Florida will make every effort to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest," wrote Constantinos Miskis, a regional administrator for the Administration on Aging.
Lee, the long-term care ombudsman who served under Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, resigned last month after he said he was told he would be fired otherwise. It came after he repeatedly butted heads with the nursing home industry, whose lobby is particularly powerful in Florida.
Lee, at odds with the nursing home industry at points during his tenure, said animosity toward him grew after the election of Scott, who previously ran the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, and who founded Solantic, a chain of urgent care centers.
The last straw, Lee believes, was his Jan. 31 letter to nursing homes directing them to submit information on their ownership, permitted under the new federal health care law. It's a contentious issue; critics say that's because facilities are often split into multiple businesses to make suits against them more difficult.
After Lee's departure, a letter was sent out telling them to disregard the order.