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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

“Right now, many of your fellow ombudsmen have resigned and more will be leaving soon,” she said. “You are working for the industry, and they are not paying you a dime.”

Locally, the lack of volunteers has been having an impact on how well the ombudsman’s office can do its job. According to Lashea Heidelberg, district ombudsman manager for the East Central Region, which currently includes Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Brevard counties, her office used to tend to approximately 60 resident complaints per month; now it only receives about 20 to 30 per month, and she says she doesn’t think that’s because there are fewer things to complain about – just fewer people to complain to. The East Central office used to have about 40 volunteers, but at the most recent count, the number has dwindled to 18.

“I have fewer people to cover the ground,” she says. “Sometimes with elderly people, they may forget that they have us to call. If we don’t have a real presence, it really shows in the numbers. … We just don’t have enough people. And the numbers have dropped statewide.”

Heidelberg stops short of saying what she thinks causes people to drop out of the program, but she says she does sense some frustration among the volunteers that remain, partly due to concerns that their ability to properly advocate for residents in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities may be diminished – whether due to politics or simply decreasing numbers of people willing to do the work.

“Without the volunteers we don’t really have much of a program,” she says. “They are the ones who are in the trenches daily.”

When asked how the recent negative attention the program has received from the media and politicians has impacted morale, she says she thinks it has really concerned some active volunteers.

“It can be difficult to reassure them that we’re still here for the residents,” she says. “It can be a little discouraging at times.”

Correction: The original version of this story contained inaccurate data about the number of residents in long-term care facilities in the state of Florida. According to the state Department of Elder Affairs, there are 168,193 beds in the 4,039 long-term care facilities operating in Florida. Orlando Weekly regrets the error.

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