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In NY, number of nursing home monitors in decline

Observer-Dispatch - 12/23/2019

During her seven years as a volunteer long-term care ombudswoman, Sue Schafer has chatted with lonely nursing home residents, worked with administration to resolve residents' concerns and even picked up an absentee ballot so a resident could vote.

It's her job to be an outside pair of eyes and ears, making sure that all residents are safe and well cared for, and that their wishes are respected. "I went this route mostly because my dad had been in a nursing home for a year," she said. "And I saw that there were people who had nobody."

Her reward, she said, is meeting fascinating people who've led incredible lives.

The state-run ombudsman program provides the residents of long-term care facilities with at least weekly access to people, not employed by the facilities, who promote their rights, help resolve their concerns and observe conditions in their homes, said Krystal Wheatley Curley, senior program coordinator for the New York State Long Term Care Ombudsman Program in Oneida, Herkimer, Madison and Otsego counties, which is run by the Resource Center for Independent Living.

"Without ombudsman access," she said, "I think many residents would have a very diminished quality of life."

But the ombudsman program, which was put in place to keep nursing home residents safe, is understaffed across the state for both paid and volunteer workers, according to an audit released this fall by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

The comptroller's office found that 600 long-term care facilities have a volunteer ombudsman assigned to them, leaving 900 facilities covered by 50 paid staff members. That's about half the minimum recommended in the New York State Office for the Aging guidelines and it puts New York 39th nationally in terms of staffing ratios, the audit noted.

And the number of volunteer ombudsman fell 37 percent over the three years ending Sept. 30, 2018, the audit found.

"The ombudsman program is essential to protecting nursing home residents," said Richard Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition. "Ombudsmen are the only ones who regularly monitor nursing homes."

"In the absence of sufficient funding," he added, "nursing homes are not visited or monitored and residents don't have access to the ombudsman services to which everyone is entitled under the Older Americans Act."

And too few ombudsmen could mean, Mollot said, that residents' concerns, including those involving serious rights and health violations, won't get addressed.

The number of volunteer ombudsmen in this area has stayed steady in recent years, Curley said. That doesn't mean, though, that there are enough to cover every long-term care facility.

In the local, four-county office, 20 volunteer ombudsmen cover 20 of the 27 nursing homes; Curley and another professional cover the other seven nursing homes and 24 adult homes and assisted-living facilities. Between them all, they serve about 5,000 residents, Curley said.

She said she would like to recruit more residents, but won't compromise on quality to do it. Being a volunteer ombudsman requires a time commitment of at least two to four hours a week and takes a unique mix of skills, including being a problem solver and the ability to walk a tight rope between residents and administration, she said.

"Being an ombudsman is an art," Curley said.

Administrators are often a fan of the program, too.

Tracy Margott, administrator of Utica Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, said the nursing home has been lucky enough to have the same designated volunteer ombudsman for three years.

"The ombudsman is a great resource for the residents, ensuring their rights and satisfaction," she said. "The facility leadership works collaboratively with the ombudsman to assist in providing the best solutions and suggestions for residents' satisfaction.

"It has been helpful for us to have someone with a history in this building while we have transitioned to an entirely new management team and structure over the past year.

Curley said she often helps with relatively minor issues, like getting bacon back on the menu.

"They may seem simple to others but for the residents, they're big quality of life issues," she said.

In another case, Curley helped a resident who wanted to transfer out of a facility he didn't think was a good fit, she said.

His response is one of the rewards that keeps her in the program, she said.

"He just looked at me," Curley recalled, "and said, 'You know, everyone thinks the world is going to hell, but when people like you care about people like me, I know there is still good in the world.'"

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