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Elder Care Activists Worry About Roadblocks for Elder Watchdogs

The Miami Herald continued is close look at nursing home abuse and neglect by considering the ways in which those charged with helping keep seniors safe are actually being muzzled. The story shared the story of one volunteer advocate who worked with the state’s Long-term Care Ombudsman Program. The volunteer advocate had provided years of dedicated services, but program leaders were concerned about comments he had made suggesting that the program was too connected to the nursing home industry. The volunteer advocate worried that the program’s actions were compromised by this cozy relationship with those whom they are suppose to be monitoring. In the end the volunteer was fired. Disagreement remains over whether the man knew that his comments were likely to get him fired.

However, the advocate is certainly not the first to lose a job following a shake-up of Florida’s Ombudsman Program. According to Herald reports, this volunteer was only the latest in a string of firings and resignations by former elder care advocates who are concerned about the program’s decision to move in a “new direction.” Many of those departing advocates worry that elder care neglect and abuse will undoubtedly rise as the oversight of long-term care facilities weakens. They continue that it is not surprise that long-term care facility owners and operators have been very pleased with the “new direction” of the Ombudsman Program.

The problems with the agency began when the former Ombudsman was fired and replaced by a new individual recommended by an assisted living industry group. The new chief began slowing down the inspection and investigation rates conducted by the body, sparking widespread anger among those who actually perform the inspections and are seeking to root out nursing home neglect in the state. The vast majority of former ombudsman inspectors have reported sincere dissatisfaction with the conduct of the current leadership. It seems that the discontent is so pervasive that some employees are being dismissed essentially as “warning” to others to stop criticizing the group.

Statistics reveal the problem. Under the old system virtually every facility was inspected by volunteers in a year; some homes even got two inspections. However, under the new system, the inspection rate dropped for the first time in years, as 14% of homes did not get inspected at all. Also, before the changes volunteers investigated over 9,000 individual complaints, compared to 7,500 this year-a 17 percent reduction.

Many advocates also criticized changes in the inspection forms which they say will make it much harder for them to identify nursing home abuse, neglect, and poor conditions. In the past, inspectors could essentially visit different parts of the facility, ensure the kitchen was clean, bathrooms were sanitary, and similar common sense inspection tasks. However, they can no longer do that. Instead, the volunteers cannot look around and can only interview residents. In fact, last week an area grand jury actually issued a very critical report of the condition in these assisted living facilities, specifically noting that the old form was far superior for actually ensuring that residents’ rights were being respected.

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