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Brian Lee: Good-Guy Nursing Home Watchdog or Shill for a Trial Lawyer?

By: Nancy Smith | Posted: February 26, 2014 3:55 AM
Brian Lee

Brian Lee

For eight years he headed Florida's long-term-care ombudsman program. Now his critics insist he's whipping up business for one of the state's busiest nursing home litigators.


They say Brian Lee finds disgruntled patients, then Tampa personal injury attorney Jim Wilkes sues the living bedsheets out of their nursing homes.

"That's ridiculous," says Lee. "I don't set up cases for anybody."

But the executive director of Families for Better Care (FBC), a nonprofit citizen advocacy group, doesn't deny FBC gets a lot of its money from the Wilkes & McHugh law firm. "We get donations from unions, families and, yes, the one Tampa law firm. I have to admit, we wouldn't be able to exist without Wilkes & McHugh.

"But I've never even spoken to these guys," Lee said emphatically.

Not possible, says one South Florida AARP activist.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, she asked incredulously, "Lee got thousands of dollars from a benefactor and never picked up the phone even once to say thank you?"

The senior citizen said she now is at the age where she is chronically unwell herself. What she doesn't want to happen to her one day is what happened to her mother.

Jim Wilkes

Jim Wilkes

She told me some years ago her elderly mother was in a nursing home sued by Jim Wilkes' law firm. The home eventually went out of business, displacing patients and staff and causing her mother to relocate in a home 10 miles farther away.

"For lawyers, it's a living, I suppose," she said, "but for my mother, it was a way of life. She was happy and comfortable there and close enough so I could visit every other day. I don't ever want to be that far away from my children."

She and others among the AARP membership tell me they're convinced patients' advocate Brian Lee works hand in glove with Wilkes' very lucrative law firm. Wilkes has made a living suing nursing homes on behalf of Medicaid and Medicare clients who have died or been injured because he claimed he could prove they received negligent care.

Now Lee, she says, is fighting bills in the Florida House and Senate that would make it more difficult to put a nursing home out of business.

"Fighting for better care is good, but why not work with the staff to improve or correct the things that are wrong?" Nursing homes closing down is in no one's best interest, she says.

Lee is suing the State of Florida for wrongful termination of his $78,000-a-year job in 2011. According to newspaper reports at the time, he claimed Gov. Rick Scott succumbed to industry claims that he had developed a contentious relationship with too many nursing homes, and by federal law, the governor cannot interfere with, or retaliate against, an ombudsman. Some within the Capitol, however, say Lee was one of many who simply got caught in the change-of-governor transition. 

Immediately after, Lee founded Families for Better Care. And three years later, the suit is still pending. 

Lee admits he's doing everything in his power to kill the bills now in the Legislature. He says they're not far enough removed from similar legislation that went down in flames in 2012. The Senate bill was responsible for the demise of former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, who sponsored the bill, Lee said. The Democratic Party used it in crushing ads to portray the Fort Lauderdale Republican, who lost to Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, as willing to sell out senior citizens.

The 2014 bill, SB 670, has already breezed through the Senate Health Policy Committee. What it does is shield nursing home investors from lawsuits when their homes are accused of abuse and neglect. In exchange, trial lawyers get easier access to documents.

Bill sponsor John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said he's proud of it: “It benefits elders as well as their loved ones. By shielding nursing homes from lawsuits, the homes have extra protection so they can stay in business, all good for residents.”

AARP activists claim that's what they like. They said suing the life out of nursing homes is no way to improve quality in the industry, and the only ones who like that idea are Lee and Wilkes.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, filed the companion bill in the House. It included the new proposal that limits who can be sued to the owner and staff of the nursing home. Lawmakers wanted to protect "passive investors" so that real responsibility rests with those directly running the homes. 

"If this legislation passes, nursing homes in Florida will go straight downhill and their owners will rake in even more profits," Lee said. "One in four of our nursing homes is on the 'watch' list -- meaning they've already been identified as causing harm." 

But in a state-by-state report card on nursing homes that Families for Better Care recently published, Florida's were graded "B" -- not exactly dire.

Lee also told me, "There is no lawsuit problem out there" -- meaning the legislation is unnecessary.

That's contradictory. Which is it? A mounting "watch" list signifying Florida failure, or a much-improved industry that cleaned up its act since 2001 and earned a "B" grade?

Said Lee, "Despite what the nursing home industry says about me, this bill is a terrible deal for residents."

Kristen Knapp, director of communications for Florida Health Care Association, said the legislation has the support of the FHCA, AARP, the Florida Justice Association (the trial lawyers) and the Chamber of Commerce. "We've made such important strides. We're not perfect but we now lead the nation, for example, in staffing ratio."

"What these organizations like about the legislation -- what we all like about it -- is that it clarifies the process, takes away the ability of others to abuse the system," Knapp said.

If the legislation passes, litigator Wilkes could take a mighty hit. Knapp didn't say that -- it was just something that crossed my mind at the end of the day.

 

Brian Lee Cartoon

Brian Lee as critics portray him

 

 Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423.


Comments (11)

Boyd Crowder
2:43AM MAR 2ND 2014
Brian Lee is a liar. It's that plain and simple. For instance, he claims in this article that Families for Better Care is not funded solely by the law firm of Wilkes and McHugh. He says they also receive donations from unions, families, etc. Unfortunately, this doesn't match up with the most recent financial statement that Families for Better Care filed with the IRS. If you don't believe me, just google "Form 990PF for Families for Better Care Inc." The statement is posted publicly.

And what you'll find is that, of the $130,000.00 donated to Families for Better Care, every single penny came from Wilkes & McHugh's law firm.

This is just one of many lies that Brian Lee has told over the past few years. I'll list more if anyone's interested.

I also wanted to point out a factual error in this article. It claims that Lee started Families for Better Care immediately after leaving the Ombudsman program. We'll, this is not the case. Families for Better Care had been around a couple years already, and was previously headed up by another former State Ombudsman, Barbara Hengstebeck. She also headed up Wilkes & Mchugh's previous non-profit, Coalition to Protect America's Elders, which they basically just renamed to Families for Better Care.

Something else you need to know about Brian Lee: He works out of the Communications Office of Steven Vancore. If you're not sure what that means, just do a little google searching for Vancore's connection to Wilkes & McHugh.

Okay, this comment is getting really long. Perhaps I'll include more info in another post. Suffice it to say, Brian Lee will eventually be exposed. This is only the tip of the iceberg.
And The Truth Is
4:04PM FEB 27TH 2014
Let’s see now where do we start? One of the first things Rick Scott done upon taking over as co-governor of Florida with Jeb Bush to fire Brian Lee who for eight years he headed Florida's long-term-care ombudsman program.

For those who don’t know what that is it’s kind of like the “public defender” for people in Florida’s nursing homes that can’t fight the big old system alone.

First of all Federal law said Rick Scott could not fire Florida's long-term-care ombudsman to begin with. But, what’s a federal law to get in the way of Rick Scott and Jeb Bush/, they make their own laws!

A little background here. For those who really think Rick Scott had two donut shops and his mother and wife worked in them with him, I can get you a deal on the Brooklyn Bridge and you can start your own toll business! The donut thing happened early in life! Richard (Rick) Lynn Scott was really a partner with Johnson and Swanson Law firm in Dallas, Texas. Partners with Tom Hicks and George W. Bush in the Texas Rangers. In the hospital takeover business with Richard Rainwater another big Bush family buddy and together Rick Scott and Richard Rainwater Columbia/ HCA pulled off the second largest Medicare Fraud in US History. Second only International Medical Centers Medicare Fraud in the billions pulled of by Miguel Recarey with the help of his partner Jeb Bush and his phones calls to Washington, DC when his dad was VP. This fraud was in the Billions and Miguel Recarey is still running from the feds today. But, the two biggest Medicare fraud involved criminals in US history are running the state of Florida right now! Did you see Jeb Bush install Carlos Lopez Cantera as Lt. Governor? And their goons want to make lightly of someone like Brian Lee searching for “disgruntled nursing home patients” or some law firm who would have the decency to file a lawsuit by some victim in need. That is the purpose of the Civil Courts of Florida to determine the validity of all lawsuits coming before them! On the other hand it is Florida mob to attempt to remove any rights an injured party might have from recourse in the courts! Jeb Bush destroyed the judicial system in Florida during his days as full governor.
When Jeb Bush was governor of Florida he cut a deal with Robert Schemel – American Elder Care of Delray Beach for a scheme Bush called nursing home diversion. The state paid Schemel $1500. For each person he could keep out of a nursing home. Robert Schemel had people stacked up like mummies in run down rat holes and so called ALF’s all over Florida. Again they were collecting the social security benefits, the Medicare and plus that Florida Medicaid paid Schemel $1500. The problem with their scheme was in order to qualify for the $1500. The person had to meet level of care to be in a nursing home to begin with. So it was the nursing homes Bush and his Robert Schemel friends were looting also.
The new Rick Scott and Bush scheme is moving Florida Medicaid to Managed Care. In one area they give the “victims” three choices. Again Robert Schemel and American Elder Care on that list. The lists of questions they ask a patient (victim) leads anyone with half brains to see once again their goals are to keep as many people as possible out of nursing homes.

While they might be concerned about Brian Lee, they are actually concerned about anyone who has enough sense to see the scams they are pulling and they will go to great lengths to manipulate any situation to their advantages. P. S. New warning. Do not let them give your loved ones any drug to be released in March called ZOHYDRO it is a nursing home cleaning out drug!

No wonder Rick Scott fired Brian Lee. I hope he wins his lawsuit. Since Rick Scott claims he used $70 million of his own money to buy the co-governorship with Jeb, Brain Lee should sue both of the criminals personally since they are so personally involved with everything Florida.
Don’t you think that anyone under the influences of the two biggest Medicare fraud engineers in US history should have the right to have an Ombudsman and a good lawyer? If the cases they bring before the courts are frivolous it is the duty of the trial judge to bring that up with the plaintiff’s attorney and the Florida Barr if necessary!

Why all of a sudden are the big bad fearless "government public servicers" afraid of little people having some one on their side for a change? After all the government has more fingers than it has hands to carry them.
Win Hoffman
10:26AM FEB 27TH 2014
Of course, .. I would expect that all the entities who felt threatened by the excellent work by this dedicated public servant would hammer away at his reputation .. and judging from the vitriolic flavor of this article, it seems to me that this publication could certainly qualify as a shill for the administration, AARP, FHCA, .. et al.
watchman
12:34PM FEB 27TH 2014
you are double dead wrong about this man. he does NOT care where his money comes from or who uses him. i will come out with information soon enuf to show this is the first reporter or story with the courage to tell the truth. i don't care about the laws being proposed in the leglature, i care about the truth though.
Jan Scherrer
10:07AM FEB 27TH 2014
I would truly be alarmed if this piece were written by an actual journalist with values. Fortunately, that's not the case. Just a piece of agitprop for the governor and his corporate cronies. How low one must go to write a piece of propaganda that will ultimately hurt frail, elderly people in nursing homes. Shame on you, Nancy.
Kate Ricks
11:15PM FEB 26TH 2014
We are amazed at the position attributed to AARP Florida in this article. We would strongly urge the national AARP organization to seriously investigate this issue to determine if this position is truly reflective of the overall AARP mission. If this is truly the position of AARP, that organization is no longer representing the interests of the seniors of Florida or the country. Florida, at this time, has often put the needs of nursing home owners and investors well above the needs of those who must live in these nursing homes. Dollars over people is the only way to describe this situation and this attack is a part of that overall plan. There are very many lobbyists, lawyers, and associations advertising the case for the facilities. There are few individuals standing on the side of nursing home residents. Florida is very luck to have someone as diligent and as caring as Brian Lee looking after the interests of the Florida people in need of nursing home care and their friends and families.
Jan Scherrer
10:00AM FEB 27TH 2014
Your comment is the only thing worthy of print here. Advocates for our elderly can only hope that people will not buy this load of propaganda for the governor and his nursing home corporate buddies. The passing of this bill will be a very bleak day for nursing home residents and those who love them.
andrew r mckillop
2:19PM FEB 26TH 2014
doesn't surprise me. I had sent a complaint to him a couple of years ago and he disregarded it completely and treated me as the enemy. When I faced him at an FHCA seminar, he told me not to worry about it as the person involved was NO longer working for him ! I told him that his disregard of the complaint was totally unprofessional as was his treatment of a CNHA,operating a 5 star facility with years of experience.
John Simmons
11:08AM FEB 26TH 2014
Mark is right..Lee was a schill for Wilkes even when he was a State Employee. he is not interested in improving Nursing Homes but in making money from them If you take all of the money Wilkes has sued for which was taken out of the industry you could pay for more staff and give them better wages and make vast improvements. Instead Wilkes flies his fleet of jets around with that money...I wonder what amount of money he does give to Lee actually is. Seems one could get giving records or tax records and take good look at this. and Mark was right again saying if Lee was so good why can he not find a great job in the private sector??
Orange
9:20AM FEB 26TH 2014
Thank you Sunshine State News for shining a light on this absurdity. This guy has been a shill for Jim Wilkes even when he was in his state job.
Mark
8:25AM FEB 26TH 2014
Lee claims to have never spoken to the one and only law firm that has made donations to his little group, so much so that he stated, "I have to admit, we wouldn't be able to exist without Wilkes & McHugh." Huh? And he's never had contact with this generous law firm which allows his group to even "exist"? Come on now. If it smells like a pig, talks like a pig, and eats like a pig, no matter how much lipstick you put on it, it still is a pig! And it seems Mr. Lee may be attempting to make the industry look so bad while Scott is governor. He needs to grow up and face the political facts. When a new guy/girl comes in, they have the right (and almost a duty) to bring in their own qualified people to lead in certain areas. It must be people the governor can trust and who else but his own people? I have not agreed with Scott's governorship, but I do recognize his rights to have who he wants on his staff. Perhaps, if Mr. Lee was so well qualified, he'd have been offered a handsome salary in the private sector rather than creating his own little group accepting funding from one lawyers office along with other donations. Get over it Mr. Lee!

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