"Some fear decline in Inland eldercare
with cut of state funds for ombudsman program"
10:00 PM PDT on Thursday, October 16, 2008
By LORA HINES
Elimination of state funding for California's long-term care ombudsman program has elder care advocates concerned that residents living in the Inland's nearly 1,000 nursing homes and residential care facilities could be at risk.
The $3.8 million cut to California's long-term care ombudsman program has forced closure of at least one of 33 programs statewide, despite state laws requiring ombudsmen to monitor nursing homes and residential care facilities and investigate complaints. Ombudsmen act as patient advocates and protect their safety and rights.
Meanwhile, California nursing homes received Medi-Cal payment increases, which are not required to be spent on patient care or staffing.
"How do you just wipe out a program like that?" asked Pat McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, a consumer protection group. "There are an awful lot of people who are at risk."
H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the California Department of Finance, said the ombudsman program was one of many that Schwarzenegger had to slash to fund other essential services, such combating wildfires.
"It has nothing to do with the value of the program," he said.
Schwarzenegger's spokeswoman, Lisa Page, said the governor is confident inspectors from the California Department of Public Health, who monitor and inspect nursing homes will respond to patients' needs.
Mary McClure, Riverside County's long-term care ombudsman, said she lost $145,000 -- more than half of her $257,000 budget -- when Schwarzenegger eliminated funding. She laid off three full-time employees, reduced a full-time employee to part-time status and cut mileage reimbursement for 20 volunteers, she said.
McClure is one of two full-time employees left to run the program that is supposed to monitor and investigate complaints at 53 nursing homes and more than 600 residential care facilities and other adult homes.
A 1978 federal law requires each state to establish a long-term care ombudsman program. Earlier that decade, then President Richard Nixon came up with a nursing home plan, which included investigative ombudsman units, after congressional hearings revealed instances of widespread neglect of nursing home residents.
Between July 1, 2007, and June 30, 2008, McClure's office received nearly 2,400 complaints.
About 85 percent of patients living in the county's nursing homes and other adult care facilities don't have relatives or regular visitors to protect them, McClure said.
"It is quite devastating," she said. "They keep leaving old people behind. Our whole motivation for what we do is to make sure those people are treated with dignity."
Roberta Wertenberg, San Bernardino County's long-term care ombudsman said Schwarzenegger's program probably cut her budget in half. The county's attorneys will determine how her office meets its state mandates and without state funding, she said.
The program, which operated on about $322,000 a year, has about $123,500, according to estimates.
Wertenberg is one of four full-time employees and about two dozen volunteers who monitor 54 nursing homes and more than 265 residential care facilities throughout the county. The program receives an average of 1,200 complaints per year, she said.
Wertenberg recalled a recent report involving an alleged patient rape, which had been witnessed. Law enforcement officials did not perform a rape kit, in which evidence could have been collected from the alleged victim. Officers also got an arrest warrant for the elderly and mentally disabled woman, who had become combative, Wertenberg said.
"There is no other agency to pick up the pieces," said Wertenberg, who did not identify the law enforcement agency or the facility involved. "We can't look to law enforcement, which doesn't even seem to be terribly understanding."
Most complaints Wertenberg's program receives involve facilities where employees who do not respond to call lights activated by patients when they need help. Police and the county's Department of Adult Protective Services are not going to get involved in those issues, she said.
By law, inspectors from the state Public Health Department must evaluate nursing homes at least once a year.
The California Department of Social Services must inspect residential care facilities for the elderly and adult residential facilities once every five years.
Betsy Hite, spokeswoman for the California Association of Health Facilities, said the funding cut stunned her. The association is a professional organization for owners of nursing homes and residential care facilities statewide.
"I think the ombudsmen play a valuable role," she said. "This may be an opportunity for families to get involved and be an extra set of eyes in facilities."