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Ombudsman Program Tries to Follow Money

California’s long-term ombudsman program, a volunteer network governed by a state agency, is designed to represent and advocate for people in nursing homes and senior housing. In many cases, it’s the only forum seniors have to voice complaints and concerns about their living situations — which makes it an extremely popular program among seniors.

Right now, the state’s ombudsman program may be beloved, but it’s a beloved orphan.

Last year, the $3.8 million program was cut, and then lawmakers later restored almost half of it — $1.6 million. But now, even that temporary funding is gone, and officials have been scrounging to come up with enough money to keep the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program going.

On top of that, questions are being raised about the scope of the ombudsman program. Volunteers are doing work, such as handling and reporting complaints, that may be out of the range of their training.

So the oversight hearing today will discuss just what volunteers should be allowed to do; where short-term and long-term funding for the program might come from; what possible federal dollars could be targeted to support the program; and even what the state agency should look like — whether it should be independent or remain as part of the Department of Aging.

One bill currently in Senate appropriations, AB 2555 (Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles), plans to take $1.6 million from another state program. Advocates acknowledge it’s a Band-Aid approach, but a necessary one to keep the ombudsman program alive. Concerns have been raised about harming the state program that’s having its money borrowed.

As for the other, wide-ranging concerns about the program itself, a recent Senate report raised big issues about just what the ombudsman program should be doing.

Joseph Rodrigues, who heads the state Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, said there are several avenues for federal funding, which he will discuss at the oversight hearing.

Though he doesn’t feel it’s necessary to create an entirely new and independent agency to handle ombudsman duties, he said the most important thing is keeping the program going, since it serves such a central need for an at-risk population. This is a program that needs to be expanded, he said, so that reporting of complaints and concerns becomes commonplace and well-accepted.

“I’m hoping to explain how the ombudsman alone handles these complaints, and [because they are volunteers] they need to act at the direction of the resident,” Rodrigues said.

“They are often scared of retaliation, whether real or imagined, and they may not want the ombudsman to do anything, depending on their comfort level,” he said. “These residents may be recipients of abuse and neglect, but if they don’t want you to share information, you can’t do that.”



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