Senate probes ‘interference’ into nursing home watchdog program

Oct 3, 2011

The following article was published in the Orlando Sentinel on October 3, 2011:

Senate investigates ‘interference’ into nursing home watchdog program

By Kate Santich

A Florida Senate committee is investigating allegations that the state’s Department of Elder Affairs illegally interfered with a watchdog program that is supposed to protect the rights of residents in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

The Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs has scheduled a hearing Tuesdayto question the elder affairs staff following a highly critical report from the federal government a month ago that showed repeated violations.

The report, from the Administration on Aging, cited numerous problems with the department’s oversight of the state’s Long Term Care Ombudsman Program.

It criticized the Department of Elder Affairs for what it described as muzzling the ombudsman program’s communication with the media and 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, saying that “it must be clear to the volunteers that they work for and are answerable only to the Long Term Care Ombudsman.”

Department Secretary Charles Corley has maintained that his office violated no laws and is committed to “ensuring the independence” and integrity of the ombudsman program.

But legislators from both political parties have expressed serious concerns. Democratic state Sen. Nan Rich, vice-chairman of the Children, Families and Elder Affairs committee, said both she and committee chairman Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, were alarmed by what seems to be a lack of independence of the long-term care ombudsman program.

In February, the once-heralded chief ombudsman, Brian Lee, was fired from his $78,000-a-year post following complaints from facility owners to Gov. Rick Scott that Lee was too aggressive.

“We have 4 million seniors in the state of Florida. We need to get this right,” said Rich, of Sunrise. “The removal of the state Long Term Care Ombudsman raises a lot of serious concerns regarding the ability of the person in that position to independently and effectively do his or her job, which is to advocate on behalf of residents. I think we need to get to the bottom of it.”

The ombudsman program was set up in each state under the 1965 U.S. Older Americans Act, and federal law requires it to be free of political interference.

Tuesday’s hearing may be first of several on the subject, Rich said. The issue ultimately may be the subject of upcoming legislation to the make the Long Term Care Ombudsman program a separate entity and not under the authority of the Department of Elder Affairs.

Testimony is expected to come from the federal Administration on Aging, the Department of Elder Affairs, and current Long Term Care Ombudsman Jim Crochet, who was recommended for the post by an industry trade group, the Florida Assisted Living Association.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Crochet’s predecessor, Lee.

“Here the Legislature passes these laws to protect residents, and then the executive branch just ignored them.”

The hearing comes as a task force appointed by Scott investigates ways to improve patient safety and monitoring in assisted-living facilities.

Its creation in July followed a yearlong investigation by The Miami Herald exposing lax enforcement at facilities in which residents were neglected, beaten and left in filthy and dangerous conditions. The paper cited the deaths of 70 residents from abuse or neglect since 2002.

Lynn Dos Santos, the former volunteer chairwoman of the State Long Term Care Ombudsman Council, said she was “thrilled” by the Senate committee’s decision to look into the issue. Dos Santos was dismissed by the department after speaking out on Lee’s behalf and criticizing Scott’s actions.

“As an illegally fired ombudsman, I am still sickened by these egregious acts,” she said. “But more importantly, I am scared as a senior citizen who might one day be faced with the prospect of needing an independent ombudsman to advocate for me — and there won’t be one to help.

“Many of my fellow ombudsmen have resigned and even more are considering leaving” because of the way the program is being managed, Dos Santos said.

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