Loophole carved out for Dade Medical College is closed

Dade Medical College owner Ernesto Perez.
Dade Medical College owner Ernesto Perez. Palm Beach Post

Dade Medical College was once so powerful that it could get a law changed — and it did.

Three years ago, Florida lawmakers created a loophole that allowed the politically connected for-profit college to offer unaccredited degrees in the field of physical therapy assistant. The degrees were a bad deal for students, and physical therapy practitioners were horrified.

Nowadays, Dade Medical is out of business, and the Legislature apparently has some concerns about for-profit college abuses. So lawmakers this session reversed course.

And the Dade Medical loophole is no more.

In recent weeks, lawmakers quietly reinstated the tougher accreditation standards that used to exist — tacking the provision onto a wide-ranging Department of Health bill during the final weeks of the legislative session. The measure passed both the House and Senate easily, and is now awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature.

The Legislature’s decision comes after a recent Miami Herald investigation, Higher-Ed Hustle, showed how Florida’s for-profit industry operates largely without government oversight.

Unaccredited physical therapy assistant programs were a disaster for some students who signed up for them. Some complained of poor instructional quality, but more importantly, graduates of those programs can’t work with Medicare patients under federal regulations. That means students who completed the programs — and paid as much as $40,000 — are largely unemployable. Several hospitals have previously told the Herald they would never hire these students.

Former Dade Medical College student Mamoune Julien Louis said the school falsely assured her that its unaccredited program would lead to a job. Julien Louis said students eventually found out about the Medicare restrictions.

The experience felt like a “dirty trick,” she said.

When Florida began allowing unaccredited PTA programs in 2013, it was the only state in the nation to do so.

State Rep. Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican, said graduates not being able to service Medicare, in a state flush with retirees, made the unaccredited degree “kind of useless.” Brodeur sponsored the tougher accreditation requirements in the House.

“I saw it as patient protection, to be honest,” Brodeur said of the law change.

Florida’s GOP-led Legislature is still somewhat resistant to regulating for-profit colleges, which receive as much as 90 percent of their revenues from taxpayer-funded financial aid programs such as federal Pell grants. But this year’s legislative session was marked by a shift in tone, with lawmakers considering several bills that would have created more protections for students. The tougher accreditation standards for physical therapy assistants was the only measure that passed.

Miami state Rep. José Javier Rodríguez credited the Herald series with helping change the conversation.

“In terms of really telling people’s stories . . . it wasn’t something that legislators could continue to ignore,” he said.

In previous years, Tallahassee lawmakers were focused on helping for-profit schools, not regulating them. Between 2009 and 2014, lawmakers passed at least 15 pro-industry bills — weakening academic standards, stifling the growth of competing community colleges, and allowing for-profits access to more public money.

One of those 15 laws dealt with physical therapy assistants, and it became a powerful symbol of the close ties between lawmakers and for-profit colleges.

Across the country, PTA programs have long been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, or CAPTE. The accreditor is known in higher-ed circles for having rigorous standards.

But in 2013, a politically influential for-profit, Coral Gables-based Dade Medical College, was struggling to get the CAPTE accreditation it needed. One lawmaker, Miami Rep. Carlos Trujillo, responded by weakening Florida’s accreditation standards so that CAPTE was no longer required.

Dade Medical then aggressively enrolled hundreds of students in an unaccredited program costing between $35,000 and $40,000 — bringing the college millions of dollars in revenues.

Trujillo, an attorney, had done prior legal work for Dade Medical, and his sister-in-law received free tuition at the for-profit college, the Herald reported. Trujillo said he had no conflict of interest because his sister-in-law was not an immediate family member, and the new law benefited all schools, not just Dade Medical.

Trujillo did not respond to phone messages or a text message sent on Friday. Dade Medical abruptly closed in October after the U.S. Department of Education placed the school under heightened scrutiny and slowed the flow of financial aid dollars. The closure left roughly 2,000 students stranded, and the college’s 400 employees didn’t receive their final paychecks.

A few days later, Dade Medical owner Ernesto Perez was arrested for illegally bundling more than $159,000 in campaign contributions to politicians. Perez pleaded guilty and received two months of house arrest, followed by three years of probation.

On Friday, Perez said he disagreed with the Legislature’s decision to reinstate the CAPTE accreditation requirement for physical therapy assistant programs.

“That is a giant step backwards for education in the state of Florida,” he wrote in a text message. “To have a single organization determine who may and who may not qualify to be a medical professional is monopolistic in nature.”

At Dade Medical, “no one was ever lied to to my knowledge,” Perez said.

Though Dade Medical is out of business, other for-profit colleges followed its lead and began offering unaccredited PTA programs. More than a dozen schools currently do so, according to Florida’s oversight agency, the Commission for Independent Education.

If Gov. Scott signs off on the new accreditation requirements, those schools would likely have to shut down their unaccredited programs. One of those schools, Miami’s Professional Hands Institute, was stunned by the news.

“When did they change that? We are not aware of that,” said Evelyn Gonzalez, a professor there.

Ed Rodriguez, the school’s program director, said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

But Florida’s Physical Therapy Association was pleased. The trade association has opposed Florida’s unaccredited programs from the start, and spent the past three years trying to find lawmakers who would listen. When the Legislature restored the CAPTE accreditation requirement, the association sent an email blast to its members hailing the “tremendous victory.”

Florida’s Board of Physical Therapy — part of the Department of Health — has also consistently raised alarms about allowing unaccredited programs to train students. Citing public safety concerns, the board resisted letting Dade Medical’s students take the state license test, but then gave in amid political pressure from state Sen. Oscar Braynon II — who had taken a job at Perez’s other school, the University of Southernmost Florida.

When Braynon, of Miami Gardens, appeared before the board a year ago, he never disclosed he was employed as “senior vice president of government and senior relations” for Perez’s school. Braynon drove to Gainesville to speak to the board — an act that may have violated the Florida Constitution, which prohibits lawmakers from getting paid to make appearances before a state agency.

Braynon has told the Herald that USMF never asked him to go. And he responded to a reporter’s inquiries by saying he’d had a change of heart and decided to support bringing back the CAPTE requirement.

Braynon filed a bill that would make that change during this year’s session, but that bill didn’t advance. Still, the same change was accomplished through the Department of Health bill that did pass.

Braynon didn’t return calls or a text message on Friday.