Miami lawmaker Rep. José Javier Rodríguez blasted Florida’s for-profit college oversight agency on Tuesday — questioning whether it has the “political will” to crack down on misbehaving schools.
Rodríguez’s harsh words came nearly three months after the disastrous closure of Coral Gables-based Dade Medical College. Dade Medical’s roughly 2,000 students were left in limbo because the school never gave the state a plan to “teach out” the students at another college, which is required by Florida law. Violating that law is a misdemeanor.
Florida’s for-profit oversight agency, the Commission for Independent Education, has the power to refer Dade Medical owner Ernesto Perez to prosecutors because of how the closure happened. But so far, the CIE — which is dominated by for-profit college executives — has taken no action.
In a letter e-mailed to CIE Executive Director Samuel Ferguson, Rodríguez wrote he was “deeply disappointed” in the agency’s response.
“Most telling is the commission’s repeated and continued failure to simply be available to students in Miami,” wrote Rodríguez, who is a Democrat. “Despite repeated assurances to me since early November that plans are underway to send staff to South Florida to meet with and assist affected students, three months after the closure we continue to wait.”
Under its own agency rules, the CIE is supposed to send a staffer to any school that closes.
I wasn’t working in that department, I have no comment. Thanks, bye.”
Ernesto Perez, owner of Dade Medical College
The CIE is part of the Florida Department of Education. Its next board meeting is on Thursday. Rodríguez urged the agency to consider referring Dade Medical’s “improper closure” to law enforcement — an action that, he said, would send a message that the state takes the issue seriously.
“In my view, such a signal has so far been seriously lacking,” Rodríguez wrote.
Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said Dade Medical’s closure will be discussed by the CIE on Thursday. She did not provide any response to Rodríguez’s letter.
Monica Galan, a former nursing coordinator at Dade Medical’s Jacksonville campus, said the company’s Oct. 30 email announcing the shutdown happened only two days after the college received Pell grants and student loans from the federal government.
Dade Medical collected the full Pell grant amount of $5,775 from some students — for a whole semester — even though it closed after a week’s worth of classes, Galan said.
More recently, Galan said she and other ex-employees were stunned to find out they weren’t covered by the company health insurance for the month of October, even though they had been paying premiums out of their paychecks. Galan said she has $700 in unexpected doctors bills, and she called UnitedHealthcare to find out what happened.
What Galan said she was told: Dade Medical College requested a refund of its October healthcare premiums on Nov. 4, and UnitedHealthcare sent out the refund on Nov. 11. Because of that refund, the insurer is now denying any claims for October, she said.
Nov. 4 is one day after prosecutors charged Dade Medical owner Ernesto Perez with illegally bundling more than $159,000 in campaign contributions. He later pleaded guilty, and is currently on house arrest.
Galan said she asked the insurance rep, whose name was James, who requested the refund at Dade Medical. The rep, she said, said the first name was Valerie, but he wasn’t sure how to pronounce the last name, so he spelled it out.
“He spelled Munoz,” Galan said. Valerie Munoz was Dade Medical’s HR director.
Reached by phone, Munoz denied having anything to do with employees losing health insurance. Munoz said she herself went to the hospital in October, and now has a “substantial” unexpected bill. Munoz said the Herald should contact former Dade Medical CEO Chris Gressett.
Gressett declined to comment. Perez, the college owner, did the same.
“I wasn’t working in that department, I have no comment. Thanks, bye,” Perez said.
A UnitedHealthcare spokeswoman, Liz Calzadilla-Fiallo, confirmed that insurance claims for October aren’t being honored. She said there was no refund given to Dade Medical, but that the college never paid its October premiums in the first place, and so there is no coverage for ex-employees.
Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said Dade Medical’s closure will be discussed by the CIE on Thursday.
One former college employee, frustrated with the phone calls demanding payment, told the bill collectors to send the invoices to Perez’s house, and she gave them the address.
“Why should I be paying for an invoice when the money was taken out of my paycheck?” ex-employee Nancy Nawaz said. “Let him pay it. He kept that money.”