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    Hospice donations diverted, suit says

    By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 26, 2003

    LARGO -- Charitable donations for the terminally ill at Hospice of the Florida Suncoast have been diverted to a for-profit company run by the hospice, a lawsuit says.

    The lawsuit, filed by a former employee Tuesday in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, accuses the hospice of shoring up its unprofitable software subsidiary, Suncoast Solutions, by a total of $7.6-million since 1998, without telling donors.

    The suit also accuses the hospice and the subsidiary of releasing confidential patient and employee information without permission and says the hospice does not adequately track the donation of property.

    In addition, items intended for the hospice thrift shop sometimes disappear or are bought by insiders, the suit says.

    Hospice officials denied the allegations.

    Fluffy Cazalas, the former information technology employee who filed the lawsuit, said she had no option.

    "I definitely did not want to be forced into this position," said Cazalas, "But I don't think they gave me any choice because what they're doing is wrong."

    She was an employee and a hospice donor, she said.

    Mary Labyak, the hospice's executive director, said no donations are used to fund Suncoast Solutions. Instead, she said, insurance payments to the hospice, including Medicaid, may have helped fund the company.

    "I just can't tell you how shocked and outraged I am to read this lawsuit," Labyak said. "We will spend thousands of hours, if that's what it takes, to track this down until we get some answers."

    She also said she doubted that the $7.6-million cited by the lawsuit is correct.

    "We would never transfer charitable dollars into an entity like that," Labyak said. "They are self-supported. We might have put a little bit of money into it to help the company get started. They would have paid it back."

    About seven years ago, she said, the hospice began developing software to allow nurses and doctors to access patient treatment information by computer from remote locations.

    The hospice incorporated the for-profit Software Solutions in December 1998 to market the software to other hospices around the country.

    She acknowledged that Software Solutions has not been profitable.

    "It's a startup company," Labyak said. "It actually will end up paying Hospice back for the investment Hospice has made in developing the software. The company will become a source of support for Hospice. You can only rely so much on charitable contributions and public reimbursement."

    Jonathan Alpert, the Tampa attorney who filed the suit on Cazalas' behalf, said the hospice's own documents make it clear that charitable donations helped fund the subsidiary.

    "People who gave money are entitled to get it back if they want it," he said. "Fluffy is hopeful that many won't want it back. But it's a disclosure that needs to be made, and the law needs to be followed."

    Alpert was careful to note in the lawsuit and in an interview that the lawsuit is not intended as an attack on the good work done by the hospice and its employees. He said he wants the public to continue to support the hospice and make donations.

    "We don't want to discourage people about donating their money," he said. "But we want to make sure everyone is doing so understanding what they are donating for and how the contributions are being used.

    "Fluffy looks at the suit as a way of preserving Hospice and keeping it fiscally and legally sound," Alpert said.

    Alpert said it is a violation of Florida law for any charitable group to misrepresent how donations are used.

    Cazalas said the hospice and Software Solutions released patient and employee information while marketing the software around the country and in training others how to use it. She said she complained, but the practice continued.

    She said the hospice retaliated against her after she complained that confidential information was being released, and she decided to take another job outside Pinellas with an unrelated hospice group. She declined to detail the alleged retaliation.

    Labyak said she could not talk about the circumstances of Cazalas' departure, though she denied there was any retaliation.

    The Hospice of the Florida Suncoast is one of the largest organizations of its kind in the world and is a major Pinellas County employer.

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