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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

“My feeling is that the ombudsman program is to be an advocate,” he says. “They do have a role to provide some assessments to follow up on complaints in the course of their advocacy work. But in many cases what was transpiring is that many of our ombudsmen who were volunteers were acting in the role of AHCA [Agency for Health Care Administration] regulators.”

AHCA is the state regulatory agency in charge of making sure that long-term care facilities meet certain minimum health and safety standards; ombudsmen, Hudson says, were at times treading on AHCA’s territory in their regular assessments.

“That’s not the role they were designed for,” he says. “In some cases they were expanding the role, so I suggested that we should eliminate their assessment function which would by default take away some of their ability to act as regulators.”

Hudson’s bill didn’t pass, but it did have the intended shock value – he’s found that the ombudsman’s program seems to have refocused its efforts on resident complaints within its purview. He disagrees with those who think his bill was an attack on the ombudsman program.

“It looks like things are coming together and there’s no need for me to file the bill again next year,” Hudson says. “If somebody thinks that’s an assault, I’m not sure how.”

Dos Santos, who was terminated as a volunteer by the Department of Elder Affairs in April for allegedly violating provisions of Florida’s Sunshine Law by emailing other ombudsmen about “business that arguably would be discussed during a [public] council meeting,” according to the letter she received informing her of her termination, was floored to hear Hudson suggest that ombudsmen were overstepping their bounds, considering the fact that volunteer ombudsmen have no authority to fine or regulate anyone – all they can do, she says, is try to negotiate with administrators on behalf of residents or bring serious concerns to the attention of the Department of Elder Affairs or Adult Protective Services. Even when that happens, she says, their concerns are not always resolved. Further curbing ombudsmen, she fears, will mean it’s even less likely that routine but serious problems regarding cleanliness, safety or medical concerns could go undetected.

“Contrary to whatever you’ve been told, we were always resident-focused,” she told her former colleagues during last week’s meeting. “However, we knew that to truly serve residents, we had to do more than sit and play checkers with the residents, which is what your jobs have been reduced to.”

In her comments at the meeting, Dos Santos also addressed her concern that the lack of morale and support for the program has resulted in a dwindling number of ombudsmen, which makes it even harder for those who are left to do an adequate job tending to complaints and concerns.

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