Bush again in Schiavo dispute
A state board says a Schiavo nurse violated confidentiality by giving TV interviews. The governor's attempt to save the nurse's license has raised questions of appropriateness.
By LORRI HELFAND
Published July 19, 2006
Gov. Jeb Bush's latest foray into the controversy surrounding Terri Schiavo is raising eyebrows among some state lawmakers.
After conversations with the governor's office last week, the Florida Health Department asked the state Board of Nursing to dismiss a complaint filed in May accusing a nurse of violating state and federal privacy laws by talking about Schiavo on national TV.
A state panel of nurses found there was probable cause that Carla Sauer-Iyer, a former nurse for Schiavo, violated patient confidentiality and recommended her license be revoked.
Three members of the Senate Health Care Committee question Bush's involvement and the department's reversal.
"I guess there's some pressure obviously placed on them to change their minds, and I don't find that appropriate," said state Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, referring to the Health Department. "Let's not let politics determine the outcome of administrative complaints."
The Health Department should put the public's needs first, said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, a chiropractor.
"I guess the governor can do what the governor wants to do, but the department has a fiduciary responsibility to the public as well," said Jones, one of nine Senate Republicans who last year voted against a bill intended to prolong Schiavo's life.
A Bush spokesman said it is not unusual for the governor's office to discuss controversial cases with the Health Department.
Two weeks ago the department said that divulging confidential patient information violated state administrative code and federal law. But the agency now says Sauer-Iyer shouldn't be disciplined.
That's because they say Sauer-Iyer merely said on television what she already said in an affidavit she gave Bush's legal team. She said Schiavo spoke, ate, laughed and indicated when she was in pain.
The case shouldn't be dismissed just because Sauer-Iyer repeated what she said in an affidavit, said Sen. Burt L. Saunders, R-Naples.
"The reason for her disclosing information is not that relevant," Saunders said. "If she did, that's an offense that needs to be looked at."
Florida law and administrative code says nurses can be disciplined for failing to meet minimum standards of practice, and violating the patient confidentiality constitutes such a failure. Legal experts say providing an affidavit doesn't waive that restriction.
Bush has a long history of involvement in the Schiavo case:* In August 2003, Bush asked Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer to appoint a guardian to review Schiavo's case before life-support was removed. Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge David Demers later appointed a guardian ad litem.* Two months later, Bush and the Republican-controlled Legislature pushed through Terri's Law that led to the reinsertion of Schiavo's feeding tube. The law was ruled unconstitutional.* Before her feeding tube was removed for the third and final time on March 18, 2005, Bush said there were new, compelling allegations of abuse or neglect. Investigative records later revealed few new allegations and no signs of abuse.* After Schiavo's death on March 31, 2005, Bush asked prosecutors to investigate Schiavo's death because of questions about the role of her husband, Michael. Prosecutors found no evidence that Michael Schiavo caused his wife's collapse.
Health Department spokesman Doc Kokol said new information prompted agency officials, including Health Secretary Francois Rony, to ask that the case against Sauer-Iyer be dismissed.
But that information - Sauer-Iyer's December 2003 affidavit used in Bush's unsuccessful defense of Terri's Law - isn't new.
In April 2005, the Massachusetts nurse who filed the initial complaint against Sauer-Iyer provided the Health Department with a CNN transcript and a Web link to a Fox News interview, both of which mentioned Sauer-Iyer's affidavit.
On June 6, Sauer-Iyer's former attorney, Allen R. Grossman, submitted her affidavit to the state.
But although Grossman, Schweiss and Kokol say Sauer-Iyer merely repeated on TV what she said in the statement, Sauer-Iyer said more about Schiavo on TV than in her affidavit.
In her affidavit, Sauer-Iyer, who worked for Palm Garden of Largo as a licensed practical nurse while Schiavo was there, said Schiavo said "Mommy" and "Help me," and chuckled at funny stories.
On TV, Sauer-Iyer said Schiavo ate pudding and milkshakes and could improve with "just a little bit of therapy."
The Board of Nursing's probable cause panel could consider the case against Sauer-Iyer on Aug. 17.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.