Controversy Surfaces Over Ombudsman Plan

Legislative committees started back up with a bang yesterday, when a seemingly benign measure to beef up the state’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program was almost scuttled by its director.

Yesterday, during the first meeting in months of the Senate Committee on Human Services, Senate member Lois Wolk (D-Davis) introduced SB 345, which is designed to increase the advocacy power of the long-term care ombudsman’s office.

“The idea is to strengthen the ability to advocate residents’ rights,” Wolk said. “There is warranted concern that the ombudsman’s office has not been adequately representing residents. The ultimate goal is that the ombudsman’s office will aggressively pursue advocacy for the residents of long-term care facilities.”

That didn’t sit well with Joseph Rodrigues, who’s been running that office for a decade.

“This advocacy plan doesn’t go into great detail about what would be included,” Rodrigues said. “I anticipate a significant amount of increased workload. We do not have the resources to handle any new responsibilities.”

The ombudsman program responded to 45,000 complaints last year, according to Rodrigues, “and local programs resolved about 75% of those complaints to the satisfaction of the residents.”

Committee member Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) gently pointed out the problem.

“It’d be one thing if the person in charge of this was for it,” Wright said. “But if we do pass this, it goes to the governor, and if the person in charge of it says, ‘I’m going to be advising the governor to veto it,’ well, this is sort of like a suicide mission.”

“I don’t believe in suicide,” Wolk responded with a smile. “We have lots of advocacy on this issue that will move it forward to the governor’s office.”

Wolk also pointed out that she had received a letter from Rodrigues outlining his concerns only the day before, so there would be ample time to take his concerns into account as the bill moves on. She said two recent reports critical of the ombudsman’s office prompted her to take action. “We’re taking the results of these two reports to create a more efficient ombudsman’s office,” she said.

Other committee members voiced concern that the bill would be duplicative, since the ombudsman’s office already advocates for long-term care residents.

Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) had an entirely different take: “I tend to be skeptical,” she said, “because I’ve found that ombudsman offices are not particularly useful.”

The committee voted 4-2 to move the bill along to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

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