Proposal Eliminates Ombudsman Program’s Monthly Public Meetings
This article originally ran in the Florida Current. http://www.thefloridacurrent.com/article.cfm?id=35760612
By James Call
A plan to reorganize the state’s ombudsman program for long-term care would eliminate local district councils and their monthly public meetings where local advocates discuss problems they’ve seen at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
“The basis of the bill is to make it more compliant with the Older Americans Act; streamline the local district organization and relieve it of some of the unnecessary resources that we’re having to deal with,” said bill sponsor Rep. Kenneth Roberson, R-Punta Gorda.
The Long-Term Care Ombudsman Programis mandated by the federal Older American Act and is built largely of volunteers who are trained to be local ombudsmen — advocates for residents’ rights.
The program is run by the Department of Elder Affairs, which employs a top ombudsman who coordinates its services through 17 district councils. The councils are required to hold monthly meetings that provide the public a platform to discuss problems with facilities and the ombudsmen an opportunity to discuss whether to publicize disputes they are having with nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
“The ability to publicize complaints is the strongest arrow in the quiver of the ombudsman’s office,” said Brian Lee, who was the state’s top ombudsman for nearly eight years when he left the DOEA in 2011. “If the council is not there then the volunteers can’t publicize complaints when there are problems.”
Roberson’s HB 91 and Sen. Nancy Detert’s SB 508 strip the Florida statute of the public meeting requirement and the recommended composition of the councils (one licensed pharmacist, one dietitian, a social worker, a nurse, and so on).
“It, (the proposal), guts the systematic advocacy of the program,” said Lee, who is fighting his dismissal from DOEA. “Without the councils, without the public meetings, how will ombudsmen facilitate public input into the program and pressure facilities to fix the problems?”
The ombudsman’s office does not have the authority to impose fines on facilities but can file complaints with the appropriate regulatory agency. The bill would improve ombudsmen’s access to residents and a facility’s records by lifting a requirement that a complaint be filed before the information can be requested.
“These council meetings, so much of the information is confidential and there has been poor attendance at the meetings,” said Roberson, contending that the effort to streamline procedures will not undermine the program’s advocacy mission. “The ombudsmen themselves are the representatives of the public and basically this is just reorganizing everything to make it more efficient.”
The 1972 federal law establishing an ombudsman program envisioned an independent watchdog. However, a 2011 Administration on Agency report found that having the secretary of DOEA select the top ombudsman created an inherent “conflict of interest” for the program.