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Neutering the watchdogs

Interference in state's Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program could mean less oversight of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities

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After Lee left his post, the Administration on Aging said it received “multiple requests for investigation of the actions of the state of Florida, alleging improper interference with the direction of the Florida Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program,” so it performed a compliance review of the program; in a report released in September, it determined, among other things, that the state had, in fact, improperly meddled in the ombudsman program by failing to allow the ombudsman’s program to select or terminate its own volunteers (all volunteers serve at the pleasure of the Department of Elder Affairs) and by implementing rules that forbid representatives from the ombudsman’s office from talking to the media or legislators to advocate on behalf of residents. Further, the report noted “areas of concern” about how the state appointed and removed Lee.

“The state of Florida, as openly asserted by Department of Elder Affairs leadership, does not support the spirit of the Older Americans Act and that the Long-Term Care Ombudsman has the independence to take positions representing the interests of long-term care facility residents which may be contrary to positions of the Department of Elder Affairs, sister agencies or the governor,” the report concludes. “As a result, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program has been severely limited in its ability to carry out its mission under the Older Americans Act to advocate for residents and their interests.”

Charles Corley, secretary of the state Department of Elder Affairs, responded to the report with a detailed eight-page defense of the state’s actions in its handling of the ombudsman program and insisted that the federal agency provide it with additional documentation and clarification before it would issue a “corrective action plan” to address the perceived problems with the program.

Lee says that despite the fact that Friday’s meeting was the first time the ombudsman’s council had met since the Administration on Aging’s report was released, it was hardly discussed at the meeting; many ombudsmen, he says, had not even seen it. “So we brought copies of it,” he says. “One thing we want to know is that there’s at least one watchdog out there that is outside of any kind of agency or facility that acts as a voice for our parents and grandparents and be their advocate without interference. If we don’t have that on a local level, then resident care is going to be compromised.”

But according to Rep. Hudson, who introduced legislation during the 2010 legislative session that would have eliminated the ability of ombudsmen to perform assessments of nursing home facilities, until recently, the ombudsman program had begun to overstep its bounds. His bill – introduced, as he told ombudsmen who attended the meeting last week, for “shock value” – was intended to give the program a reality check.

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