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Local elder-care ombudsmen revolt, call for independent leader

California Watch
By Christina Jewett
August 5, 2010

A group of local ombudsmen and other advocates for the elderly are calling for a fully independent statewide office for California's aging population, saying the current political appointee in charge has failed to protect their interests.

Anticipating the call to overhaul his office, state Long-Term Care Ombudsman Joseph Rodrigues said he has been assured by the Schwarzenegger administration that he can speak out more freely on behalf of seniors.

As the current elder-care ombudsman for the state, Rodrigues is a political appointee who operates within the state's Health and Human Services Agency and oversees a network of local (and increasingly activist) elder-care ombudsman offices.

In California, people who work with the elderly or disabled are mandated to tell local ombudsmen or police about neglect or abuse they observe in nursing homes and other residential care. Ombudsman offices statewide received 43,500 complaints last year, investigating many and standing up for the elders involved.

The Committee for an Independent State Office includes representatives from elder advocacy groups, including the California AARP, and local elder-care ombudsman program managers. (See the group's letter to lawmakers below.)

Linda Robinson, who coordinates the ombudsman program in Santa Cruz County, spoke during an Assembly committee on aging hearing Tuesday, saying the state office has muzzled local elder advocates from speaking to the media and failed to speak up about legislation that would benefit seniors.

"Does the state structure promote safety (and) well-being of 300,000 residents of (elder care facilities)? No," she said. "We need an independent advocate for facility residents and that can only be obtained by an ombudsman in a free-standing organization."

Rodrigues said during the hearing that he prefers to leave the office as it is.

"My personal preference is to remain within state government, as it provides us with resources we need to carry out our mandate," Rodrigues said.

During an interview, Rodrigues said he has taken positions on legislation in the past, but his views have been treated as confidential by the government code. He and Department of Aging Director Lynn Daucher spoke with two Health and Human Services officials about the roles set out for a statewide ombudsman, which include legislative advocacy.

The Older Americans Act of 1965 set up the ombudsman offices and said they are supposed to "represent the interests of residents before government agencies and seek administrative, legal and other remedies to protect the health, safety, welfare and rights of the residents."

Rodrigues said the officials agreed he should start fulfilling those roles more fully. As such, Rodrigues said he is calling on Congressional leaders to appropriate funding meant to go to ombudsmen offices. And he will be testifying today in favor of an ombudsman-funding bill.

He said he will also prepare a "transition binder" to lay out the office's roles and responsibilities to the state's next elder-care ombudsman.

Robinson said she is taking a wait-and-see approach about the recent empowerment of the state ombudsman. She said even if the ombudsman takes stronger stances, the conflict of interest between an outspoken advocate and member of a political administration remains.

Citing past experience, the committee seeking a free ombudsman wrote a letter to lawmakers noting that the state ombudsman remained silent as the program's budget was gutted in recent years.

When asked for help and intervention from the state Long-Term Care Ombudsman (OSLTCO), the local ombudsman coordinators were informed that the OSLTCO could not intervene or advocate for restoration of funding due to their status as state employees, or in the case of our state ombudsman, and the director of the California Department of Aging, governor appointees.

In an interview, Robinson said the state ombudsman asked local advocates to seek state permission before talking to the media. And the office asked Robinson not to join a lawsuit against the state's Department of Public Health, a department that answers to the same Health and Human Services agency. Robinson said she had direct experience supporting the lawsuit's allegation: that seniors were harmed when public health officials did not investigate complaints in a timely matter.

"The kind of silencing that goes on trickles down to local level," Robinson said. "The expectation is that we will also not speak up."

State Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, chaired the hearing and closed it without signaling her position on whether the statewide ombudsman office should remain within the Department of Aging. "There are many different perspectives and many different partners in this endeavor we're all involved in to ensure the safety, health and well-being of (seniors)," she said.