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Gov. Scott gets bill to reopen Lakeland hospice closed by paperwork error

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A Lakeland hospice forced to close by the state over a paperwork error is near reopening by way of a bill passed last week by the Florida Legislature.

On Friday, both the Senate and House passed HB 441, giving Compassionate Care Hospice (CCH) on Drane Field Road access to an expedited process to reapply for its license. The process can begin once Gov. Rick Scott signs the bill into law.

Sponsored by state Sen. Denise Grimsley of Sebring and state Rep. Ray Rodrigues of Fort Myers, the new legislation gives the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) more flexibility in addressing administrative errors in the future. The measure seeks to protect healthcare providers from the same situation as CCH.

“We are extremely grateful to the Florida Legislature for taking up this issue and helping Compassionate Care Hospice get back to doing what it does best – caring for patients in their final days,’’ said CCH chief operating officer Judy Grey.

CCH suspended services earlier this month after the AHCA accused the facility of not submitting license renewal paperwork by a February deadline. According to the state of Florida, the company’s license technically expired, followed by a letter to CCH on March 9 ordering the hospice facility to stop operations immediately.

CCH officials said they sent the proper paperwork to the AHCA on time, which the agency says they never received.

The facility, which serves Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties, asked the state for permission to continue serving terminally ill patients throughout the appeal process. The AHCA denied a hearing for CCH attorneys to present what they say is compelling evidence the company submitted the proper license renewal. Officials responded by saying their hands were tied since state law has no provision to discuss lost renewal notices.

CCH worked with area lawmakers to draft legislation allowing the company to resume operations and continue to give hospice services to about 250 patients in their homes and healthcare facilities.

The bill passed the Senate 38-0 and the House of Representatives 106-0, and is now on its way to the governor’s desk.

Once Scott signs the bill, CCH will be able to reapply for its state license, taking advantage of an abbreviated process that could take up to two weeks, depending on the AHCA. It also would need to re-enroll for reimbursements through Medicaid and Medicare.

Ideally, CCH officials say the company could start rehiring employees and accepting new patients within a few months, but with the law, it would now be much sooner than if they had to begin licensing process from scratch.

Because of the closure, CCH – which operates nationwide – laid off about 150 employees in Central Florida, although the company did continue to pay its employees for a short time. In March, CCH cut about $250,000 in payroll checks, without any guarantee of reimbursement, as dictated by state law for licensed hospice providers.

“The Legislature’s unanimous approval is a huge win for Compassionate Care and the patients we serve,’’ said CCH attorney Geoffrey Smith. “While it’s unfortunate that it has taken this long to remedy the issue, we are optimistic Compassionate Care will be able to reopen.’’

Officials also thanked the lawmakers for their help in drafting legislation to resolve the dispute.

“We appreciate the support of the many lawmakers who understand the importance of finding a quick solution to this problem,” Smith said in a statement. “We are especially grateful to Senators Denise Grimsley, Aaron Bean, Jack Latvala and Kelli Stargel; and Representatives Ray Rodrigues, Neil Combee and Colleen Burton.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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