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Medical program lacked license

(ran PC edition)

Donna Fredrickson said her case worker at Vocational Rehabilitation Services suggested this spring that she take a class at a Zephyrhills medical training facility.

The best part of the deal: The state agency would pay her tuition to be trained as a surgical technologist.

"I thought this would be great," said the 46-year-old, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. "I still have a long life ahead of me, and I wanted a new career. I was relying on this."

Now the school, Zephyrhills Medical Arts Institute, is under investigation by the state Department of Education, and the state agency and state-supervised agency that poured an unknown amount of money into its coffers are under the microscope as well.

"There's some federal and state money that's been spent not too wisely," said Guery Davis, the program specialist who will investigate the school for the state Commission for Independent Education. "If these guys are doing it, they're financing an unlicensed school."

The school has operated without the licenses required by law for a job training program, Davis said. But that hasn't stopped the two agencies _ the state Vocational Rehabilitation Services program and the Pasco-Hernando Jobs and Education Partnership Regional Board _ from paying for students to take classes at Zephyrhills Medical Arts Institute, workers at the agencies admitted Friday to the St. Petersburg Times.

In Fredrickson's case, Vocational Rehabilitation Services got its money back. That hasn't always happened.

After inquiries Friday from the Times, the state director of the Vocation Rehabilitation Services program launched an investigation to determine how much taxpayer money flowed improperly from his Dade City office into the facility.

"Somebody down there made a bad decision, didn't they," director Carl Miller said.

An unlicensed school or program should never receive money from his agency, Miller said. If it did, "I'm going to have to ask for some sort of restitution," Miller said.

Miller's agency, which is federally and state funded, isn't the only one that sent money to the school.

The Pasco-Hernando Jobs and Education Partnership Regional Board, which oversees federal money, has paid for 37 people to take classes at the Zephyrhills school since March 2000, the board's contract manager said. That's significant because the school had no license to offer any medical training until May of this year.

No one associated with the regional board expressed immediate concern that taxpayer money has funded a school whose status the state is questioning.

Because it is federal money, it is not illegal to pay a school that lacks a state license, said Mike Switzer, the vice president for policy and programs at Workforce Florida, the state-supervised non-profit that oversees the regional board.

He said he will check into the matter, but not right away.

"I have a lot of other stuff going on," he said.

Inside their brick-faced building at 5315 Eighth St., the school's owners and directors _ John, 61, and Antoinette Ross, 55, of Zephyrhills _ had little to say to the Times on Friday.

"We didn't do anything wrong," Antoinette Ross said.

Later she changed her tone.

"We're not going to say we're the best school," she said. "We're going to say we try hard. If there is a problem, we will correct it."

Davis of the Commission for Independent Education, a division of the state Department of Education, told the Times he will visit the school Thursday. His office has received five complaints from students and another complaint from a competing medical training school, which he would not name.

Any business that provides occupational training must receive a license by completing an "inch-thick" packet that includes curriculum details, finance reports and a sample enrollment agreement among other items, Davis said.

He said it would take "some miracle" for him to find no wrongdoing at the school.

Wrongdoing could result in fines and/or the school being shut down, Davis said.

The investigation will focus on three fronts:

Davis wants to determine how the relationships started last year between the school, which was unlicensed at the time, and the two government-funded agencies, he said.

Second, the Rosses have said some people already graduated from their medical assisting program. They first received certification to provide a medical assisting program on May 1. The program they are certified to offer is 1,280 hours.

If the Rosses weren't offering the program before May 1, that would mean students have been taking classes 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

Unlikely, Davis said, especially because the government-funded agencies have admitted to sending people to the school before May 1.

Last, students have told Davis that they were enrolled in classes other than medical assisting, the only class the facility obtained a license to offer. Davis has received reports of the school offering phlebotomy, EKG and surgical tech classes.

The Times obtained a copy of the contract of one student for a surgical tech class. The Rosses said the student never took the class so it was irrelevant.

Zephyrhills police also are investigating the facility after Jennifer Benware of Spring Hill filed a fraud complaint. The fraud complaint has been dropped because Benware didn't lose any money, but the police are investigating any other possible improprieties, Capt. Richard Scudder said.

The Rosses said they will have more to say after Davis' visit on Thursday.

"We want to stay here in Zephyrhills," Antoinette Ross said. "We want to grow."

_ Ryan Davis covers higher education and social services in Pasco. He can be reached at 800-333-7505 ext. 3452.