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Elder-care ombudsmen seek independence from state

California Watch
Christina Jewett
March 31, 2011

A group of local elder-care ombudsmen have found an ally in the Legislature in their quest to give the state’s top ombudsman more autonomy by creating an independent nonprofit.

The local groups, which investigate abuse allegations involving seniors in care facilities, grew disillusioned with the statewide leader when he stood by as program funding was eliminated in 2008.

Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, supports them in a move to create an independent nonprofit “giving the new ombudsman’s office the complete autonomy needed to speak out effectively on behalf of resident concerns.”

Now the current statewide ombudsman, Joseph Rodrigues, plans to fight to keep the position where it is, saying that his proximity to state leaders and the governor’s office is good for seniors.

“Frankly, I feel like we already have an independent state office,” Rodrigues said in an interview. “I don’t feel any restrictions on my ability to act and speak.”

Last summer, lawmakers held a hearing about the issue of whether the state needs to separate the state ombudsman’s office from the Health and Human Services Agency.

During the hearing, Rodrigues announced that he secured newfound autonomy to speak out on bills and advocate more strenuously for the office and for seniors.

To Sylvia Taylor-Stein, team leader of the Committee for an Independent State Ombudsman Office, the announcement came too late.

The committee initially formed, she said, when local ombudsmen banded together to fight for continued funding.

“We were working to restore some funding and we had no one at the state office supporting us,” Taylor-Stein said. “It was a nightmare.”

Taylor-Stein said some local elder-care ombudsmen have also been dispirited to see their state leader stand in silence as bills affecting seniors have taken shape. Of particular note, Taylor-Stein said, was a 2004 nursing home funding law that gave an additional $880 million to nursing homes over five years with few demands for accountability.

“That bill demanded a voice at the state level, and there was none,” she said.

A California Watch investigation found that about 230 homes that saw increased funding also cut staffing or wages or lagged beneath a 2000 staffing standard.

Typically, a political appointee who reports to a state agency does not take public stands on legislation and does not fight the chain of command over budget cuts. Taylor-Stein said the newfound autonomy granted to the statewide office could disappear as quickly as it was granted.

The bill seeking an independent statewide office, SB 345, is currently a placeholder but is expected to be fleshed out this week. According to Sen. Wolk’s office, it would be modeled after independent offices in Colorado and Washington.

“Federal law requires the state ombudsman to speak out on all issues that affect long-term care,” Wolk said in a statement. “It is important that we establish the proper organizational structure to allow the state ombudsman to fulfill their legal duties and avoid conflict of interest.”