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Desperate to prevent an exodus of staff, Knutson started doling out cash — often in $100 bills — to caregivers who needed to pay their bills or buy gas to get to patients’ homes, former employees said.
In interviews, a number Crystal Care attendants said they worked weeks, even months, without pay but finally had to stop after draining their savings and even cashing out their 401(k) retirement accounts. “These clients were like our children,’’ said one, Jacqueline Reed of Minneapolis. “Would you abandon your own baby?”
Last September, a week before the company filed for bankruptcy, Knutson called an employee meeting at the Richfield headquarters. Abbott, the former Crystal Care nurse, said she was handed a list of 98 patients and told to call and tell them to find a new provider.
Abbott made a flurry of calls, she recalls, but many people did not pick up their phones and some did not understand English. The firm did not have a translator at the time, she said. “The [patient] outreach effort was too little and too late,” Abbott said.
In January 2014, when the company had already lost two-thirds of its clients and most of its employees, the Department of Human Services finally took action.
It notified Crystal Care that it was terminating Medicaid payments to the firm because of improper billing and other violations. The notice made no mention of patient care concerns.
“No one stepped up in this case,” said Roberta Opheim, the state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities, an advocate for the mentally ill and disabled who is appointed by the governor and investigates patient complaints. “It raises a serious question: If another major home care company comes crashing down, what are the safeguards to ensure that people don’t fall through the cracks?”
Jerry Parson, the former Crystal Care client with multiple sclerosis, wonders that, too.
On a recent weekday, Parson laughed and joked as a cheerful young caregiver moved his thin arms and legs in wide circles to prevent his muscles from atrophying.
But Parson, who uses a wheelchair and spends most of his waking hours in the kitchen of his apartment, has a lot of time to think — and to worry.
“If they drop me again, they may decide I’m just too much trouble and just put me away in a nursing home,” he said. “I don’t want to spend the final years of my life staring up at a blank ceiling.”
Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308