The Minnesota Department of Health has fired one of its top administrators, triggering fresh concerns about the agency's handling of allegations of criminal abuse in senior homes.
Nancy A. Omondi was terminated last month as director of the department's health regulation division, which oversees state investigations of abuse in senior care facilities. Omondi alleges she was fired in retaliation for filing a complaint about "misconduct and bullying" in her division, as well as high staff turnover, her attorney said Tuesday.
After her termination, Omondi approached Sen. Karin Housley, chairwoman of the state Senate Committee on Aging and Long-term Care, who on Tuesday joined two other senators in calling for an investigation into management practices at the division that handles elder complaints.
"[Omondi] desperately tried to get the attention of her superiors ... but it fell on deaf ears," Housley, a Republican from St. Marys Point near Afton, said at a news conference Tuesday. "What this whistleblower uncovered was a toxic culture of bullying, intimidation, harassment and complete disregard for outside input."
The call for a fresh investigation comes a month after the Star Tribune published a five-part series chronicling breakdowns in the state's handling of elder abuse investigations. The series found that hundreds of vulnerable residents at senior care centers across Minnesota are beaten, sexually assaulted or robbed each year. Yet the vast majority of these incidents are never resolved, and perpetrators often go unpunished, in part because the Health Department lacks the staff and expertise to investigate the crimes.
A Health Department spokesman said the agency is coordinating with the Minnesota Management and Budget office to investigate Omondi's complaint.
"The core values of our department include integrity, respect and accountability," spokesman Michael Schommer said in an e-mail. "We take all complaints raised by or against our employees at any level of the organization very seriously."
Philip Villaume, an attorney for Omondi, called the timing of her termination "highly suspect."
Omondi filed a formal complaint on Nov. 13, alleging a "pattern of bullying and harassment and dysfunction" within the health regulation division, he said. She had planned to raise these same concerns with Minnesota's legislative auditor, who is also evaluating the Health Department's process for investigating maltreatment complaints. Omondi was fired a day before she was scheduled to meet with a representative with the Legislative Auditor's office, Villaume said. The firing also occurred a day before Omondi had a scheduled meeting with Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger, where she had also planned to raise her concerns about misconduct, the attorney said.
"It's clear they were trying to silence her by terminating her," said Villaume, who said he is preparing a lawsuit against the Health Department. "It's a classic whistleblower case."
Agency officials declined to discuss the terms of Omondi's departure.
Omondi, 43, is a health research scientist who was born in Kenya and graduated from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. She worked at the Health Department from Sept. 19, 2016, to Nov. 29, 2017.
As the population of seniors seeking care has increased, the Health Department has been overwhelmed by a dramatic surge in maltreatment complaints. Last year, the agency received 25,226 allegations of abuse and neglect in senior care facilities, a sevenfold increase since 2010. The agency has failed to keep pace with this increase, and last year investigated only 3 percent of maltreatment complaints on site. Even when the state does investigate, the cases can drag on for months, frustrating families and making criminal prosecutions difficult or impossible, the Star Tribune found.
Agency officials early this year admitted they were falling behind, and persuaded lawmakers to allocate $11.4 million in new funding to investigate health facility complaints.
With the new funding, the agency has embarked on a plan to double its investigative staff over the next four years, including more investigators with a criminal justice background. The agency is also modernizing its computer systems so that it can share more information about abuse investigations electronically; currently, the agency is hampered by a paper-based system that slows investigations.
"We've been running fast to catch up, but it's clear we're not running fast enough," Ehlinger said in a recent interview.
However, both Housley and Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee, said Tuesday they would oppose any new funding for the division that investigates maltreatment until the concerns raised by Omondi are addressed.
"There should be no more money until we know what they are going to do about this toxic culture," Housley said. "No one should be fired for speaking up."
Since the Star Tribune series was published, Gov. Mark Dayton has appointed a working group to review the Health Department's oversight of state-licensed senior care homes, and Housley announced that she is preparing bills for the 2018 Legislature that would improve the speed and transparency of Health Department investigations.
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres