Allegations of Neglected Minn. Patients, Unpaid Employees

Updated: 02/19/2014 11:06 PM By: Beth McDonough

A 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation reveals some patients are in limbo and are possibly being neglected while the people who are taking care of them are not getting paid.

A lot of lives are affected by Crystal Care Health Services. The Richfield company provides at-home care for 900 Minnesotans, and 800 people work to take care of them. The company gets federal and state money, which includes millions of taxpayer dollars. 

Four months after 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS exposed Crystal Care's troubles, we wanted to know who's helping the ill and those who take care of them.

"I can't stand very long," says Gail Eckert. Because she's in so much pain.

Eckert says even though she's 56-years-old, "Sometimes I feel like I'm 90." A brain tumor, spinal disease and other health problems make it a struggle for her to get around on her own in her Anoka apartment. That's why she hired Crystal Care Home Health. 

A personal care assistant is supposed to stop by five days a week, three hours a day. But lately help has been hit or miss. "I don't get the care I need, if I do get the care, it's a week afterward, they're not reliable, they're inconsistent," Eckert said.

Deb Bolnick and Judy Cochran work for Crystal Care, "I know Crystal Care clients are not getting their care and now I wonder if she's billing out -- these are the most vulnerable people we have. We've got the mentally ill, the disabled, the elderly; they don't deserve to be treated like that, and we don't deserve not to get paid."

The Crystal Care aides first reached out to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS back in May when their paychecks, several weeks' worth, started bouncing. Fast forward to September and the story is the same. 

Workers are baffled and say they're broke. "Where's the money, and how come she's gotten away with all this? That would be my question too, if I would write that many bad checks I would really be in trouble.  I'm sure she must be in trouble, too, but why aren't we getting paid? We worked for our pay like everybody else; we have bills."

We went with Cochran to the bank listed on Crystal Care's paycheck. It's signed by Sally Knutson, the CEO of Crystal Care. We waited as Cochran tried to cash the check. It's for weeks' worth of back pay. She came outside without a single dollar in her hand. Although the check is written for $304.75, the bank told her it's worthless. "I'm mad, I'm kind of mad at the company, I shouldn't have to do this everyday," Cochran said.

Hilda Salazer feels like she's been working for free. That's why she came to Crystal Care's main office in Richfield to plead in person for her wages. Instead of money, Salazar got a letter signed by Knutson, referring her to Hennepin County Social Services for emergency aid. "With this letter maybe they can help me, maybe not, I don't know, I have a lot of stress."

The Department of Human Services confirms over the past three years, Crystal Care has received more than $23 million in state funding. It's gotten even more from Veteran's Affairs and Insurance Companies.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked Knutson, "Where did all of this money go, millions of dollars, where did it go?" She replied "I don't know... I don't have an answer."

Knutson admits her company started having cash flow problems last spring. Soon after, the complaints started piling up. "I live and breathe the home care business and I have a significant fiduciary responsibility to the employees and the clients," she said.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS confirmed the company turned to Doral Healthcare for a short-term loan. Plus, we obtained a copy of an email Knutson sent to staffers. In the email she says the future of the business will be with Healthstar Home Health. Yet, Knutson stops short of explaining what the collaboration means for patients and Crystal Care aides who feel abandoned.

Eckert is curious, "Who's gonna take care of me, ya know?" Knutson insists, "We're going to properly manage the clients and at some point pay the employees; beyond that I cannot answer any other questions."

Sources tell 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS Knutson announced in a meeting that the company is reportedly filing bankruptcy. We called Federal Court and a case hasn't been filed.

We've put in calls to key lawmakers in the state including Gov. Mark Dayton, Sen. Thomas Bakke and State Rep. Paul Thissen to find out who's going to help these people.

The Governor's Office tells us state officials are now working to ensure that all employees at the facility will be paid promptly and that patients will continue to receive quality care.

If you're a worker and have a wage dispute, call the Department of Labor and Industry at 651-284-5005. If you're a patient and need home health services, the state has a hotline at 651-431-2670.