With the likely departure of Florida's second long-term-care ombudsman in two years, advocates for the elderly and providers of long-term care say they are mystified.
Jim Crochet, who became the state's top watchdog for elder-care residents in 2011, was placed on administrative leave Friday amid an investigation by the Department of Elder Affairs. Agency staffers were admonished to notify senior officials if Crochet tried to contact them.
"Do not discuss anything with him," wrote deputy ombudsman Susan Anderson to program staff. "Please make sure your volunteers are aware of this."
The move left a lot of people scratching their heads.
"It's just kind of strange," said Pat Lange, executive director of the Florida Assisted Living Association, which represents almost 500 facilities. "We do question what's going on."
"I'm very concerned," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.
But Ashley Marshall, communications director for the Department of Elder Affairs, said the ombudsman program is not in turmoil.
"The work of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program continues without disruption as the staff and volunteers resolve the complaints and concerns of those residing in long-term care facilities," Marshall wrote in an email.
Marshall said she was unable to answer specific questions about Crochet's leave, "as Office of Inspector General investigations are confidential."
Crochet was tapped to replace Brian Lee, who is still fighting his dismissal as ombudsman after Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011. Lee had served for seven years and was considered a thorn in the side of providers, as were some of the volunteer ombudsmen he led. Providers objected to what they viewed as the assumption of regulatory powers by the ombudsman program.
Crochet, formerly a rule-writer at the Department of Elder Affairs, was considered more industry-friendly than Lee.
"My members speak very well of him," said Paul Williams, adviser to the Assisted Living Federation of America. "He took input from all parties."
Lange, who suggested Crochet for the post, said that while they still had differences of opinion, "at least he was willing to listen. That's all we ever wanted."
On Wednesday, Lee said continuing turmoil at the ombudsman program could jeopardize the residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
Now executive director of the nonprofit Families for Better Care, Lee said the program has been compromised by pressure from long-term-care providers and state leaders.
"The Department of Elder Affairs and the governor's office have put pressure on the program to pigeonhole the advocacy of the office so it couldn't be effective," he said. "It's really up in the air right now. The credibility is tarnished."
A September 2012 report by the U.S. Administration on Aging found that the ombudsman program had an inherent conflict of interest because the secretary of the Department of Elder Affairs hires and fires its leader.
Elder Affairs Secretary Charles T. Corley said at the time he respected the need for independence. But the report concluded that politics had compromised the ombudsman program's effectiveness.
Lee said he is still in litigation with the department and the nursing-home and assisted-living industries "for compromising the integrity of the office, using their power to get rid of me."
Lange credits Crochet for returning the focus of the program from regulation to advocacy.
"Jim was really concerned about making sure the ombudsmen were talking to the residents," she said.
Sobel, who has tried repeatedly and failed to pass legislation to revamp the regulation of assisted-living facilities, said Crochet had "reined in" the volunteer ombudsmen. Rather than inspecting the kitchen, she said, "Now they ask residents, 'Is everything OK?' Do you think someone with dementia can remember what's going on?"
If Crochet loses his job, Sobel said she hopes the department will pick a replacement who believes in the program's independence.
"There is a lack of regulation in this state, and the only hope people in these assisted-living facilities have is the ombudsman," Sobel said.