Gov. Rick Scott is violating the spirit of the law by meddling in a volunteer advocacy program designed to protect the elderly and disabled. A federal probe by the U.S. Administration on Aging into Florida's Long-term Care Ombudsman Program found it awash in political interference by the Governor's Office and riddled with conflicts of interest. Brian Lee, the state's former ombudsman for nursing homes and assisted living facilities, made similar claims in a lawsuit he filed after being forced to resign in February. Scott defended his administration's actions on Tuesday, but the governor and the Legislature need to create a more independent ombudsman, or the federal government will have the last word.
The federal investigation partly focused on Lee's removal. He had worked for nearly eight years supervising hundreds of volunteers at the Department of Elder Affairs, who go into nursing homes and ALFs to investigate and resolve complaints raised by residents and their loved ones. They also make annual assessments of every facility. Lee's job evaluations were glowing.
But he got into trouble, according to his retaliation lawsuit filed last month in Leon County against the department and two industry groups, after he complained that industry lobbyists were trying to hamstring his work. Political interference in the ombudsman program is illegal.
According to Lee, groups representing nursing home and ALF operators charged that he was too aggressive. They saw their influence with Scott as their ticket to be rid of him. Lee was out of a job soon after demanding that all nursing homes in the state provide information on their ownership — information he was entitled to under the new federal health care reform law. The federal investigation confirms much of Lee's description of events. Rather transparently, the Governor's Office called for a "new direction" for the ombudsman program after Lee's removal, and his request for industry information was rescinded.
The move against Lee comes after a long period of state leaders whittling away at the rights and protections nursing home and ALF residents once enjoyed. A yearlong investigation by the Miami Herald found shocking levels of abuse and neglect in the state's ALFs, causing 70 deaths since 2002. Scott created a task force in response, and while it includes consumer advocates such as state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, it is heavily weighted with industry representatives.
The federal report directs the state to change its policies to allow the ombudsman more independence from the Florida Department of Elder Affairs and Governor's Office in dealings with the media and Legislature. The federal Administration on Aging also says the way the Scott administration used its appointment and removal power to interfere with the ombudsman's work raises "troubling concerns" over the ability of the ombudsman to "independently and effectively advocate on behalf of residents." It is now up to Scott to respond to this withering appraisal by changing course. He needs to demonstrate that the state's most vulnerable residents take precedence over appeasing the assisted living facility industry.