By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Jim Crochet, Florida’s long-term care ombudsman, turned in his resignation papers this week as the Department of Elder Affairs continues to conduct an investigation into allegations of wrongdoing.
Crochet headed a program meant to protect elderly people placed in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
A few years ago, The Miami Herald conducted an award-winning investigation into abuse and neglect within many of these facilities in Florida. The reporting uncovered multiple deaths and serious injuries caused simply by mismanagement and poor care in these ALF’s an nursing homes. The reporting series, “Neglected to Death,” prompted sweeping legislation in 2012 aimed at improving standards of care and increasing regulations of these elder care facilities. However, the legislation died before the end of session that year.
Since then, the ombudsman program has been one of the few mechanisms in placed aimed at cracking down on these bad actors, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Earlier on, the program did indeed have an aggressive watchdog at the helm: Brian Lee. However, Lee was quickly ousted.
Lee’s dismissal even prompted a federal investigation.
According to The Orlando Sentinel in March 2011:
The federal Administration on Aging will investigate the dismissal of Florida’s top nursing-home watchdog, who left his post last month after what patient advocates say was illegal interference by Florida Gov.Rick Scott.
The federal agency sent a letter this week to Voices for Quality Care, a Maryland-based consumer-rights group that had called for the investigation. The letter confirmed there will be a review of Florida’s long-term-care ombudsman program, “including the circumstances surrounding [the] resignation” of the former head of that program, Brian Lee.
Lee, who had held the post for seven years, was considered a strong champion of residents’ rights. In recent months, though, he had had an increasingly contentious relationship with the industry and said he was ultimately told Feb. 7 that the governor had ordered him to resign or be fired by day’s end.
He chose to resign.
Federal and state laws prohibit political interference with and retaliation against the ombudsman.
According to many advocates, Lee was later replaced with someone favored by ALF and nursing home industry officials in the state. That someone was Jim Crochet.
The Herald reported in October 2011:
Created as an advocacy group for frail residents in long-term care homes, the program now finds many of its veterans at odds with their new leader, Jim Crochet — a longtime state administrator recommended by industry leaders. They say he is trying to diminish their roles as protectors of vulnerable adults to appease the industry.
“People just don’t understand how important these people are,” said David Gillespie, former manager of the Broward ombudsman office. “The volunteers are responsible for saving countless lives, and for improving the lives of countless others.”
Internally, nearly a dozen employees and volunteers have resigned or been fired as Crochet launched an overhaul of the agency after his appointment in April.
“We are going through a paradigm shift and it is difficult for some who have been ingrained in the old way,” Crochet said in an August email to a top administrator of the Agency for Health Care Administration, the state’s nursing home and ALF regulator. “Unfortunately, that shift may require that some folks will leave the program.”
The new approach, Crochet acknowledged, has infuriated both volunteers and paid administrators, many of whom are fleeing. When an AHCA administrator wished him “good luck’’ in a May 17 email following his appointment, he replied: “I’ll surely need it with the reception I received by the council,” a reference to the group that meets regularly to set policy and discuss issues.
Crochet’s shift in philosophy comes as ALF industry heads, several lawmakers and even AHCA leaders have mounted their own campaigns to weaken the program.
Many have said that under Crochet’s tenure, there was less policing of ALF’s.
About two years later, Crochet is under investigation and leaving the ombudsman program.
Because he had been placed on “indefinite” leave as the Department of Elder Affairs, which houses the Ombudsman Program, conducts an internal investigation into undisclosed allegations of wrongdoing, Crochet likely will never return to the agency he headed for more than two years.
Nevertheless, the inspector general’s investigation will continue, said Ashley Marshall, a Department of Elder Affairs spokeswoman.
Crochet, whose home number appears to be disconnected, could not be reached by the Miami Herald.
“I would like to see the governor, or the Elder Affairs secretary, appoint an ombudsman who brings the program back to the way it used to be, when it played a meaningful role in the state of Florida to help protect vulnerable seniors,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. “I’d like them to appoint somebody who understands the [federal] Older Americans Act, which requires the independence of ombudsmen.”
As the Herald also points out, Crochet is the third high-ranking agency official under Gov. Rick Scott to resign within a few weeks. Last week, Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned after the Associated Press reported he had changed his grading policies when he was head of schools in Indiana to accommodate a charter school founded by a wealthy political donor.
Before that, the head of the Department of Children and Families, David Wilkins, resigned. His department was under fire for having multiple children die while they were under the agency’s watch.