TALLAHASSEE — A proposal winding its way through the Florida Legislature seeks to raise the bar for nursing education programs.
But on Tuesday, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, added a provision that would give struggling programs more leniency by allowing longer probationary periods before closure.
Among the potential beneficiaries: politically connected Dade Medical College.
Three of Dade Medical College's nursing programs are on probation for low passing rates on the national licensing exam, according to the college's website.
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Fresen said his amendment was not intended to benefit Dade Medical College, or any of the other 21 nursing programs on probation.
"It allows the [state] nursing board to extend probation at their discretion," Fresen said.
But Linda Quick, the president of the South Florida Hospital & Healthcare Association, raised concerns about the provision — and said she suspected it was likely influenced by Fresen's ties to college executives.
"Anything that prolongs the period of time that institutions have to meet basic standards is not a good idea," Quick said. "They should be able to do it sooner rather than later."
Calls and emails to Dade Medical College were not returned Tuesday. One of Fresen's former legislative aides, Jonathan Janeiro, is Dade Medical's co-CEO.
Lawmakers filed SB 1036 and HB 1059 in response to a slide in performance at the state's nursing programs. The proposals would require all nursing programs to achieve national accreditation within five years.
Fresen's amendment to the House version addresses nursing programs on probation.
Nursing programs in Florida need to have a passage rate on the licensing exam that is no lower than 10 points below the national average. Dade Medical's scores are usually far below that. In 2012, for example, the national average was a 90 percent passage rate. Dade Medical's Hollywood campus had a 39 percent passage rate.
Under current law, programs on probation must improve their passage rates on the national licensing exams within two years in order to avoid closure. Fresen's amendment allows struggling programs an additional year of probation before the sanctions kick in.
Rep. Cary Pigman, the Avon Park Republican who is sponsoring the nursing education bill, characterized Fresen's amendment as "friendly." He pointed out that struggling nursing programs would have to meet certain benchmarks to get the additional year of probation.
"It's compromise language," he said. "It makes it a little more palatable."
Fresen's support of the nursing education bill was critical. As chair of the education appropriations subcommittee, he could have shelved the bill, making its chances of becoming law considerably smaller.
Public records show that Fresen took an active role in facilitating Dade Medical's plans for the city of Homestead — even though Fresen's district does not include Homestead. Records show Fresen scheduled a 2009 "meet and greet" between Dade Medical College founder Ernesto Perez and Homestead's then-mayor. A few months later, Fresen's office scheduled a second meeting between Perez and city administrators, with Fresen listed as one of the expected attendees.
Dade Medical's real estate arm later signed a deal with Homestead that would have enabled the college to obtain 19 city properties at a significant discount. City officials ultimately backed out.
Dade Medical, records show, has hired three lobbyists for the 2014 legislative session. The school already boasted considerable clout in the Legislature.
Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, has a $115,000-a-year job as Dade Medical's vice president of external affairs. Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, has done legal work for Dade Medical — and also for Perez individually
The college and its leaders have spent at least $200,000 on campaign contributions in recent years, according to campaign records.