One of the biggest providers of mental health counselors in Florida schools, Motivational Coaches of America (MCUSA), has come under fire after an investigation by the Palm Beach Post found that some employees say they haven't been paid and that high turnover has led to counselors abandoning children who have grown to trust them.
Palm Beach County cut its contract with MCUSA following the Post investigation, and Broward plans to reconsider the program after a year-end review. Miami-Dade, which has had a relationship with the company for the past two years, has not taken any action.
But more problems for the company are looming. The company is linked to a Medicaid fraud investigation being conducted by the Florida attorney general's office.
Asked about an investigation involving a former MCUSA senior employee, Kylie Mason, press secretary for Attorney General Pam Bondi, responded, "We have an active and ongoing Medicaid fraud investigation and cannot comment further at this time."
Julio Avael III, founder and CEO of MCUSA, says he is completely unaware of the probe. "We have not been served with any documentation to indicate such," Avael told New Times. "I have had no contact with anyone from the attorney general's office."
MCUSA was founded in Miami in 2001 under the name the Non-Violence Project USA, according to IRS forms from the company. But it wasn't until 2012 that Avael was listed as the company's principal officer. The company's mission is to provide young people support through "motivational coaches that offer students social and emotional care on campus," according to its website.
The company's presence in South Florida schools has grown rapidly in recent years — in February, a press release from MCUSA claimed the company operates in 12 counties and more than 300 schools throughout the state. At the time, MCUSA stated its services were available in 78 schools in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach.
"Motivational coaches will work with school principals to identify youth who have been displaced or have suffered extensive trauma due to the impact of the Stoneman Douglas shooting," MCUSA wrote in the release.
Avael told schools that he would provide services for free and that no child would be turned away, according to the Post investigation. In reality, the company emphasized "sponsored" children — kids with the right insurance.
But MCUSA's profits rely largely on insurance payouts. So to earn any money for seeing "unsponsored" children, coaches were encouraged to meet with students in groups that included sponsored children, allowing the company to bill public and private insurance companies to compensate employees.
MCUSA has taken more than $400,000 in the past two years from state Medicaid coffers, the Post investigation noted.
One of the company's founding members who asked not to be named says she abruptly resigned after receiving a call from the state attorney general's office about eight months ago. Though her impression of the company and of Avael was largely positive, she expressed some ethical reservations about what she was asked to approve.
"They wanted me to be dishonest. I refused to do it,” the former employee said. “I kept saying, 'Who is signing my name?' Someone was signing my name on these documents that I wasn't signing — that's why the emails [that I turned over to the attorney general's office] were so important, because I was asking that. I was a very important player, but I didn't play well."
In April, three former MCUSA coaches, including Giovanna Suarez, who worked at Ruben Dario Middle School in
Avael said of the lawsuit and the lead plaintiff, Bruno Nze: "[He] showed up and worked on campus three days. He did not document his services... The policies and procedures are clearly documented. The truth will come out in discovery."
According to the lawsuit, Nze was hired this past January 26 and ended his employment on or around March 19.
Informed of the Post investigation and concerns about MCUSA in Palm Beach, John Schuster, a spokesperson for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said, "MCUSA’s partnership with the district has remained at the same level over the last two years, with no increase or decrease. We have not experienced any issues involving high turnover or pay."
Former employees of the company, particularly the coaches who worked with children and the clinical coordinators who managed them, say they were not paid for their work, payments were often late, and they were incorrectly classified as contract workers, according to the Post investigation and two lawsuits filed against the company.
Asked about turnover issues and late payments, Avael said that every company has turnover and that the employees who left represented a very small percentage of the company's total contractors. (He later said "there's been over 500 to 600 people who worked for this organization.") He blamed coaches for delaying their own payments by not filling out paperwork correctly. He said the employees were independent contractors who set their own hours and showed up and left work whenever they wanted.
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"It's a shame that a few people who couldn't do their job are trying to ruin it for everyone else," Avael said. "I think it's absolutely discouraging and a shame that these individuals are so disgruntled instead of just doing their job correctly. What they're trying to do is negatively impact a company that provides badly needed resources to children."
In fact, Avael said, he is looking to grow the company. "There's nothing I'd like more than to expand this mission. We recently got accredited."
"The company has not been accused of Medicaid fraud or any other wrongdoing," Avael wrote in a lengthy email to New Times after discussing the allegations. "I have never altered a medical record or advised anyone to do so."