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Fired over Medicaid politics, Keen bounces back

After a study critical of Florida’s Medicaid pilot cost former Inspector General Linda Keen her job in 2008, she wondered how long it would take to get her old spunk back.

The controversial firing by former Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Holly Benson -- who had been a prime mover of the reform act in the Legislature -- left Keen stunned.

And as a single mom of two teenagers, she fretted over finances. She had a law degree but had never been in private practice.

“It was a terrible time for me,” she said. “I didn’t know what I would do next.”

She found her answer in people like Mel Smith, 90, who was fighting for benefits for his disabled daughter, who has cerebral palsy and must get around in a wheelchair.

A bureaucratic oversight had shifted his daughter into the wrong payment bracket in a state program that pays for people with disabilities to hire help at home.

As his daughter's health deteriorated and his wife battled lung cancer, Smith was in combat with various state agencies trying to get the money for his daughter's full-time care.

Finally, Smith hired Linda Keen. And on March 1, his daughter's checks jumped from $3,900 to more than $6,000 per month.

“(Keen) was able to get in touch with somebody in Tallahassee and show them that my daughter needed that kind of help,” Smith said. “I don’t know how she did it, but in a very short time everything was taken care of.”

Starting over

On nights and weekends, Keen works as a consultant for a large Delray Beach law firm, helping people like the Smiths overcome bureaucratic woes.

“I had to make so many phone calls,” Keen said of the Smith’s case. “Luckily, because I understand the bureaucracy, I was able to help them.”

The transition from inspector general to health attorney was tough on the whole family, said her 22-year-old daughter, Lauren.

“She was a really involved mom, but she also loved her job, and it meant so much to her,” Lauren Keen said. “She’s the kind of person who has always stood up for what is right. It was really unfair what happened.”

Keen was asked to resign as inspector general after she led a study that found that the Medicaid managed care pilot neither saved money nor improved access to care.

Then-AHCA Secretary Holly Benson, Keen's former boss, was sponsor of the bill that created the Medicaid pilot project. After an unsuccessful run in the Republican primary for Attorney General, Benson became senior vice president of health policy at Centene Corporation, a national company that recently bought a Florida Medicaid plan.

Inspectors general are called upon to lead impartial studies but have no job protection in politically charged Tallahassee.

Through the summer after Keen's dismissal, Lauren and her 18-year-old brother Matthew tried to cheer up their mom.

“I remember we did this day trip and we went canoeing. My mom had a really good time,” she said. “We wanted to do that for her because we had never seen her so defeated.”

Then Keen landed a job handling $400 million and helping to control costs for the state’s self-insurance trust fund at the Division of Risk Management.

It’s a good job, she said. But, as the kids moved out and she found herself free on nights and weekends, she looked for more.
That’s when she met Jeff Cohen, principal at The Florida Healthcare Law Firm.

He wanted a Tallahassee consultant for his law practice, someone who could penetrate government agencies and get things done.
He read her resume. Who better than the former inspector general?

“When you’re dealing with the regulatory agencies in Tallahassee, it really comes down to one word: access,” he said. “You need somebody who knows the people, has a good relationship with them and understands the laws involved.”

Keen, a registered nurse for 10 years before earning a law degree in 1986, said she never imagined doing this kind of work. But now, in her late 50s, she sees that she can offer specialized advice on dealing with health agencies that few people can.

“For me, what's really way cool is that I’m just little Linda Keen, busy raising my family and trying to do good for people. And suddenly I realize, gosh, I have a lot to offer,” she said.

--Questions or comments can be sent to Carol Gentry, Editor, by e-mail.