WEST PALM BEACH — The removal of the state's chief advocate for nursing home residents has riled those who work with the elderly and disabled and fueled accusations he was let go because of Gov. Rick Scott's allegiance to the health care industry.
Brian Lee, the long-term care ombudsman who served under Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, resigned earlier this 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, which has a higher percentage of seniors than any other state.
"They wanted Brian out in the worst way," said Lynn Dos Santos, a volunteer who is state chairwoman of the ombudsman program and helps oversee its roughly 300 other volunteers. "They see him as their worst enemy."
Lee, 39, had been at odds with the nursing home industry at points throughout his tenure, but 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.
At least one industry lobbyist wrote Scott in December asking for another ombudsman to be named.
"They had been ratcheting up their rhetoric to me about how they wanted me to get in step with them," he said Friday.
The last straw, Lee believes, was his Jan. 31 letter to nursing homes directing them to submit information on their ownership, as permitted under the new federal health care legislation. It's a contentious issue in the industry; critics say that's because facilities are often broken into multiple businesses to make lawsuits against them more difficult.
After Lee's departure, a new letter was sent to nursing homes telling them to disregard the order. He says the industry's intervention in the ombudsman program is a bad sign for nursing home residents.
Spokesmen for Scott, a Republican, did not return calls seeking comments. Lee is also a Republican and voted for Scott.
Ashley Marshall, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elder Affairs, which oversees the ombudsman program, confirmed Lee's departure but said she couldn't comment on its specifics.
Dos Santos called the move "willful interference" in the program and said she worried about its fate.
"The state ombudsman is supposed to be above all this political nonsense," she said. "I will not be a shill for the nursing home industry. I work for residents and residents only."