Florida Senator wants more independence for nursing-home watchdog

Oct 4, 2011

The following article was published in the Orlando Sentinel on October 4, 2011:

Senator wants more independence for nursing home watchdog

By Aaron Deslatte

A senator who oversees Florida’s seniors wants to see the state’s nursing home watchdog given more independence following Gov. Rick Scott‘s decision to fire the long-term care ombudsman and complaints that he was “muzzling” the office.

Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Chairwoman Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, grilled Florida Department of Elder Affairs Secretary Charles Corley on Tuesday over what she called the “big fracas” that stemmed from the firing and a highly critical federal report that determined Florida was violating the law by unduly influencing the watchdog program.

The controversy started in February when Scott fired Brian Lee, the longtime head of the state’s Long Term Care Ombudsman Program who had gotten under the skin of the industry. That created an uproar in the nursing-home community that intensified when the department “de-certified” two volunteer ombudsmen over emails they had sent to each other in apparent violation of the state’s open meetings law.

The ombudsman program is required by the federal Older Americans Act and is powered by volunteers who go into nursing homes and listen to complaints from residents.

That sparked a report from the federal Administration on Aging that criticized the department for “muzzling” the ombudsman program’s communication with the media and for restricting its ability to lobby the Legislature on behalf of nursing-home residents. The report also faulted the department’s selection and firing of volunteers who make up the bulk of the watchdog program’s work force.

Storms said she agreed that hiring and firing volunteers needed to stay with the ombudsman. Otherwise, she said, “We can easily see what will happen; the other volunteers will feel muzzled.”

Corley said that while he disagreed with the federal findings, the department was drafting revisions to its policies to allow the ombudsman to advocate to lawmakers and establish more independence.

“We are going to develop those policies ensuring that,” Corley said. But, he continued, the federal report “didn’t cite any instances where any members of the [department] had ever interfered or refused to allow the enrollment of a volunteer … but we’re beyond that.”

Storms said she planned to recommend to a Scott-appointed long-term care task force that the ombudsman program be completely independent of the department.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, asked who made the decision to fire Lee. “The decision … came from the Governor’s Office,” Corley said. “In any change in the administration, there are numerous positions that serve at the will of the governor. I personally had my office packed up.”

The department’s general counsel also defended the firing of the two volunteers, arguing they had sent repeated emails to each other about upcoming meetings of a long-term care council.

Storms said they should have instead told them to issue a public notice of their conversations.

“They’re not plotting to get a contract for themselves. They’re not plotting for their own personal benefit,” said Storms, a former Hillsborough County commissioner. “They’re working on behalf of the residents. That seems like a pretty amazing thing to get fired for.”

Lynn Dos Santos, a retiree from Venice and one of the two volunteers fired in April, said the department under Scott was trying to placate the long-term care industry and only removing the ombudsman program completely from the department could restore confidence in it.

“I was trying to fight for the independence of the program. I knew what was happening was wrong,” she told the committee. Corley “was calling all the shots. Nobody was allowed to do anything unless it crossed his desk. And from what I heard, it doesn’t sound like it’s going to change.”

She said proof that “the industry has taken hold” is the fact that its main lobbying association had recommended the replacement for Lee, Jim Crochet. Storms, however, said she had confidence in Crochet.

“I think he’s going to do a fine job,” Storms said. “I think he was hired under difficult circumstances, and it’s going to make for some difficult working conditions.”

Find this article here:  http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/politics/os-committee-blasts-elder-affairs-20111004,0,1056660.story