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Funds Sought for Local Ombudsman Programs

Ventura County Star
By Sylvia Taylor Stein
July 6, 2010

If you are an elderly person living in a nursing home it is quite possible you are one of the 60 percent who have outlived their family and friends or have no family or friends who ever visit. You most likely have no one who will speak up for you, check on you, and look out for you. You need a watchdog.

The organization that serves as the watchdog for almost 8,500 seniors in 234 nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Ventura County is the Long Term Care Services of Ventura County, Inc., Ombudsman Program.

For almost 30 years, this program made up of a small staff and volunteers, has continually worked on behalf of elderly residents in long-term care to help ensure their care and quality of life.

Since 2008, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed $3.8 million in funding for the local ombudsman programs throughout California, services to residents have been in jeopardy.

Last year, a portion of the lost funding was restored by using existing penalties paid by nursing homes cited for providing deficient care. A recent audit of that account, however, reveals funds were overstated and the account is almost insolvent. In the current budget crisis, there are no general funds that can be tapped.

The lifeline that could rescue this vitally important program is 6-year-old legislation, Assembly Bill 1629, which is currently undergoing much- needed reform.

In 2004, the Legislature passed AB 1629 to increase Medi-Cal rates paid to nursing homes, with the intent the extra funding would improve quality of care through increased staffing and wages. Many advocates objected to this bill because there was no accountability to ensure the funds would be used as intended.

Six years later, three significant studies show that despite receiving almost $1 billion in additional funding, nursing home residents are worse off than ever.

California legislators are now enacting reforms to AB 1629 as part of the state budget process. Under consideration are changes that would create accountability measures, cut out wasteful and inappropriate expenses and generate savings.

Advocates are urging legislators to utilize a portion of the savings from these reforms - $3.8 million - to fund local long-term care ombudsman programs statewide.

"Annual Medi-Cal spending on nursing homes is about $4 billion. Out of a $4 billion budget, California should be able to find at least $4 million to get the ombudsman program back on its feet," said Michael Connors of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.

A nursing home resident said it best, "All my family is gone. My only visitor is my ombudsman. He helps me so much; he speaks up for me. I don't know what I would do without him."

We urge California legislators to "speak up" for nursing home residents as well. A very small investment in the local ombudsman programs in California can help ensure that the state's colossal investment in nursing-home care will result in better care and quality of life for all residents in all nursing homes. Make permanent funding of the local ombudsman programs an essential reform of AB 1629.

- Sylvia Taylor Stein is executive director of Long Term Care Services of Ventura County, Inc., Ombudsman Program.
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