Florida Nursing Home Ombudsman Program Embroiled in Controversy

Advocates for nursing home residents in Florida argue the state’s federally-mandated ombudsman program is in shambles at a time when, according to reports, almost one out of every five facilities in the state is on a “watch list” for providing allegedly below-average care.

“It’s really a broken system,” Brian Lee, executive director of Families for Better Care, the group who oversaw Florida’s nursing home watch-dog efforts until 2011 and released their own nursing home report cards earlier in the year, told the Orlando Sentinel. “There’s a leadership vacuum in the ombudsman program and the state needs to open up and be honest about what’s going on . . . People are dying in these facilities.”

Adding to the allegedly rampant problems within the state’s ombudsman group, the program’s leader who replaced Lee, Jim Crochet, resigned earlier in the summer after being placed on indefinite leave as he was being investigated by Florida officials for “unspecified allegations of wrongdoing.” Shortly after Crochet’s resignation, both a top deputy and the chairwoman of the ombudsman council, the group in charge of overseeing the treatment of residents in all facilities, also abruptly resigned.

The deputy who stepped down, Don Hering, contests that while severe short-staffing is an issue that can be temporarily remedied by a few devoted volunteers, the problems start at the top with “bureaucrats more concerned about their careers and building their retirement accounts than the residents.”

Established by the federal Older Americans Act, ombudsman programs serve as a “safety net” for vulnerable residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities across the U.S. Unfortunately, in Florida—a state with more than 4,000 long-term care facilities—the state ombudsman program is helmed by only a few volunteers and paid employees.

Florida ombudsman officials have publicly disputed claims that the state’s nursing home watchdog group is in dire need of repair, with one spokeswoman characterizing the program as “thriving.” Other officials, according to the Orlando Sentinel report, have gone so far as to outright deny the existence of any widely reported issues, arguing that the program has been “bombarded by an onslaught of negative press.”

“Increasingly over the past few weeks,” Florida ombudsman officials said in August, “attacks have been used to publicly bemoan an imagined decline of the Florida Ombudsman program and to spread gross misrepresentations of program policies and decisions.”

Among many of the issues reported at nursing homes throughout Florida, inspectors have found several disturbing incidences of abuse and mistreatment detailed by the Orlando Sentinel, such as:

  • At an elder care facility in Melbourne last year, a woman fell from her wheel chair while on an outing and injured her head. The woman developed a lump “the size of an orange” on her head after staff failed to call 9-1-1. The woman was reportedly transferred to a hospital two hours later in need of surgery, but died soon after arrival.
  • A Winter Haven nursing facility was fined $17,000 by state investigators in June after workers resuscitated two elderly patients, one of which was 102 years old, who clearly stated their wishes not to be intubated to prolong their lives. The final state ruling was that the facility “violated these residents’ rights to  . . . have a peaceful and dignified death.”
  • At an Orlando nursing home, investigators learned an elderly man had repeatedly sexually molested “at least four female patients,” groped female staff, and continued to urinate in hallways with “little done” to stop his behavior.

The state has a fluctuating number of ombudsman volunteers—currently 370 across the state according to recent counts—that all must undergo background screens and training before working with seniors. However, some argue that their workload is unmanageable. Volunteers must do yearly inspections of every facility within their assigned area and must investigate all individual resident complaints with a written report within seven days. Last year, according to reports, nursing home residents made roughly 7,600 formal complaints of abuse and mistreatment.

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