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State Comptroller: Ombudsman Program In Need Of Resources

Many residents of long-term care facilities in New York state lack regular access to ombudsman services due to a decline in the number of volunteers and a severe shortage of paid staff, according to a recent audit by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

“Ensuring that residents of nursing homes and assisted living centers have regular and open contact with ombudsmen to resolve issues and provide a voice to those who feel overwhelmed is crucial to ensuring their quality of life,” DiNapoli said. “The Office for the Aging needs to improve access to these important services for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.”

Under the federal Older Americans Act of 1965, to be eligible for certain federal grants, each state is required to establish an Office of the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman. In New York, this office is within the New York State Office for the Aging and serves as an advocate and resource for the elderly and persons with disabilities who live in long-term care facilities.

Among their duties, ombudsmen identify, investigate and resolve complaints made by or on behalf of residents. There are about 1,500 long-term care facilities in the state, housing more than 160,000 residents who have a need for ombudsman services, according to NYSOFA.

DiNapoli’s auditors found that as of January 2019, only about 600 of the state’s long-term care facilities have an assigned volunteer ombudsman, leaving the remaining 900 facilities to be covered by just 50 paid local staff, about half the minimum number recommended in NYSOFA’s guidelines, which are based on information from the Institute of Medicine.

Eleven of NYSOFA’s 15 regional programs fell short of the recommended minimum number of staff for the federal fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2018, and about 30% of facilities were not visited by an ombudsman during that period. New York City, the region with the highest number of residents and facilities, was recommended to have 28 staffers, but had only five.

New York’s paid staff per 2,000 beds ranked 39th compared to other states as of Sept. 30, 2017.

According to the state Office for the Aging, the number of facilities associated with at least one complaint increased significantly — by about 84% — from 247 in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2016 to 454 in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2018. Nearly all complaints — 98% — arose from facilities that had been visited prior to the complaint, indicating that an ombudsman’s visit plays a role in a key part of the office’s mission: being accessible to residents who wish to air their concerns.

Although ombudsmen may be volunteers or paid staff, the state Office for the Aging relies heavily on citizen-volunteer ombudsmen to visit the long-term care facilities and make contact with their residents. Each regional program has a full-time, paid ombudsman coordinator who recruits, trains and supervises its volunteers.

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