LEE COUNTY — The Lee County manager admitted Tuesday she knew about the Medstar safety violations and the improper billing of more than $3 million before she shutdown the program.
County Manager Karen Hawes told commissioners she was aware the county was prohibited from billing patients for the medical flights before the program being suspended. She said the bills have been canceled and the money collected will be repaid.
Hawes said she was told that county management failed to comply with safety regulations and pilot certification set by the Federal Aviation Administration on Aug. 17. Lee County shut down the medical flight program on Aug. 21, originally citing voluntarily accreditation as the reason.
At that time, federal violations were not made public.
“Staff was keeping me informed and up to date,” Hawes said at commission.
However, later she said she wasn’t made aware of the improper billing until Sept. 6.
“To clarify, on Aug. 17 when I agreed to shut the program down, I was made aware only of unresolved and escalating personnel issues and a failure to certify pilots,” Hawes said.
That staff — Public Safety Director John Wilson and Deputy Safety Director Kim Dickerson — were not present at Tuesday’s meeting. Commissioner Frank Mann noted their absence and suggested Hawes, who declared she will be the point person on the issue, is protecting them.
“They are looking into some things for me for the investigation,” Hawes said. “I told them not to come.”
The FAA and the Lee County Clerk of Courts are also investigating the med-flight violations and billing.
Shortly after Hawes was made aware of the costly “mistake,” Wilson and Dickerson announced the six to nine month suspension, claiming they are seeking voluntary accreditation from an out-of-state company. But Eileen Frazer with Commission of Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems said services didn’t need to be suspended to seek accreditation.
On Aug. 31, Dickerson said services weren’t being suspended because of the accreditation, but because the director of flight operations was terminated.
“Under our FAA Part 135 Certificate, without a director of operations, we are not able to fly,” Dickerson wrote in that Aug. 31 email. “Therefore, our pilots were let go.”
Dickerson added in that same email that the “ultimate goal is achieving accreditation, but we do not need the accreditation to resume operations.”
Arnold McAllister, a former EMT and pilot whose position was eliminated, said Wilson and Dickerson were confronted numerous times about the violations. He said he was told the county was not billing for the flights.
McAllister also said the requirements could’ve been met last year. He said Rob Fulton, the fired operations manager who was responsible for the billings, was voicing the employees concerns about potential violations.
“They conducted a campaign on retribution,” McAllister said. “Any employee brought out the problem, got identified as the problem.”
J.A. Stakenburg, the former chief of operations of Lee County Emergency Management, reached out to Hawes on Feb. 17 by email, while he was still employed by the county, and asked to meet with Hawes.
“The situation at public safety is continuing to deteriorate rapidly,” he wrote.
The email went unanswered, he said. On Tuesday morning, Stakenburg sent another email saying he tried to contact her multiple times with no response.
“Now you know what I wanted to talk to you about,” he wrote. “The mismanagement at public safety is pervasive and dangerous to the public … I tried to warn you about it.”
Stakenburg said he left the position in April because the issues weren’t being resolved. He added that the Medstar problems, of which he knew about for years, are one of a number of problems he wanted to present to Hawes.
When Hawes was asked about emails from employees, she said, “I’ll have to go back and check.”
Commissioner Brian Bigelow said Hawes “may not be suitable for the job,” stating this isn’t the first time information has been kept from commissioners.
“When it comes to public safety there is no room for mistakes,” Bigelow said. “I urged her to meet with the Chairman and find a way out.”
Hawes said the $3 million-plus billed to patients and insurance companies will now be canceled and the amount that’s been collected, $324,000, will be returned. Winton said the estimated amount may be lower and would likely come from the general fund, as EMS is a general fund service.
Hawes said she will be sending commissioners weekly emails with updates from the investigation.