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State Ombudsman Program In Place to Address Concerns and Problems

There have recently been disturbing reports about the severe deficiencies and failures at various Sauk Valley nursing homes, encompassing facilities in multiple counties (Lee County, Whiteside County, Ogle County, and Carroll County, as well as one facility in Bureau County). Sauk Valley facilities has approximately a 65% rate of severe deficiencies, while the state of Illinois, which is one of the worst in the nation for nursing home care, has about a 25% rate. And on top of the abuse and gross neglect that occur, or at least are alleged to occur at these facilities, those who run the building fail to even adhere to building codes and fire codes, which is even more disturbing.

The state has the Illinois Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, which was implemented pursuant to both the Federal Older Americans Act as well as the Illinois Act on Aging. The purpose of the program is to “protect[] and promote[] the rights and quality of life for people who reside in long-term care facilities (nursing homes).” Ombudsman duties include “informing residents and their families of their rights; resolving complaints; providing information on residents needs/concerns to their families, facility staff and their community; and advocating for good individualized care.”

Ombudsmen have the legal right and mandate to enter any facility and access any general living areas as well as individual resident living areas if the resident allows. This also allows the ombudsman to have direct access to patients as well as staff to hear directly from them about any concerns or problems they have experienced or of which they are aware. Cathy Weightman-Moore is one of these state ombudsmen, and she specifically covers nine different counties, including the multiple aforementioned counties implicated in the Sauk Valley investigation. Ms. Weightman-Moore has six employees as well as 15 volunteers who also aid her in educating residents about their rights and know what to look for during nursing home visits. Ms. Weightman-Moore recently weighed in on this collective failure at Sauk Valley by emphasizing that all nursing home residents are a part of a community and should be treated no differently.

A Critical Service

One of the important aspects of the ombudsman program is that ombudsmen can file confidential complaints based on information gathered from nursing home residents if those residents are worried about being retaliated against by nursing home staff for complaining. The complaint, even if confidential, can trigger an investigation and ultimately sanctions and an order for compliance if the claims are meritorious. As reported, this happens nearly a quarter of the time. This process also shows how important the ombudsmen are in conveying information to residents so they are aware of their rights and know they can safely report problems without fear of rebuke. Thus the ombudsman program has educational, investigatory and compliance-related functions.

The ombudsmen program is an important aspect to keeping nursing homes in compliance and providing the proper care for residents, especially in a state with such a poor record of abuse and negligence. It is also even more important as bigger management companies take ownership stakes in these facilities, as has been seen in the Sauk Valley homes cited in the recent study. Bigger ownership by fewer companies reduces competition and makes it easier to lower quality of care. Where the bottom line for these companies is the bottom line, the quality of care, proper nutrition, correct medications, and higher staffing levels all take a hit in the desire for profit. The system can certainly be improved, and hopefully the ombudsman program can help ensure better oversight while the government will hopefully employ better regulations and effective sanctions.

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