Op-Ed

Nursing home ombudsmen key to care

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This is a true story.

Thomas, 52, slipped on ice in his driveway and broke his leg a few months ago. His recovery was complicated, but finally he was well enough to leave the hospital and go to an area nursing home for physical therapy and further rehabilitation.

Thomas was in a great deal of pain when he arrived. Fortunately, a long-term care ombudsman was in the building visiting residents that day. When she stopped in to meet him and provide information about his rights as a resident, she could tell something was wrong.

Thomas needed insulin and pain medication, but nursing home staff told him he would have to wait a couple of days while they ordered it from a pharmacy. He agreed to let the ombudsman advocate on his behalf. Within two hours, Thomas had his medicine and was able to participate in physical therapy the next day.

Sadly, this scenario is mild compared with most we encounter every day in Kentucky. Most often, the victims are residents who have no visitors (60 percent of the nursing home population) or those with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia (50 percent) — people who are physically and mentally incapable of defending themselves.

Significant increases in the cost of employee benefits and possible reductions in state funding, along with the growing number of elderly, disabled individuals living in long-term care facilities, pose a serious threat to the quality and quantity of services we can provide, even the viability of the Kentucky Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program itself.

The program consists of 15 long-term care ombudsman who serve residents in every area development district, plus the Office of the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman. They are housed in non-profit agencies or the Area Agency on Aging and Independent Living.

Ombudsmen — the voice of the voiceless — are required to visit 34,000 residents of more than 500 long-term care facilities in Kentucky. These include nursing homes, personal care homes, and family care homes. Ombudsmen traveled to these sites and performed monitoring visits on more than 12,000 occasions in fiscal year 2016.

Ombudsmen work to protect residents from harm by preventing, identifying and investigating abuse and neglect and resolving complaints about quality of care and services, free of charge. Their salaries are funded by the Older Americans Act, state funds, grants, and charitable contributions.

The proposed budget cuts and higher costs for employee benefits come at a time when demand for our services is on the rise. For example, much-needed federal regulations regarding improper discharges have resulted in a 25 percent increases in the number of cases ombudsmen must review and handle. Aside from the fact that practically all residents are physically or mentally incapable of finding another long-term care facility, improper discharges often lead to costly hospitalizations, psychological harm and, in some cases, death.

In addition, the number of long-term care beds rose by 250 from fiscal year 2016-17 — a trend that is likely to continue. Ombudsman productivity in several measurable categories also increased to meet residents’ needs. During the last 12 months, ombudsmen participated in 111 family council meetings (up 117 percent), trained 1,686 volunteers (up 28 percent), led training sessions for long-term care facility staff (up 63 percent), and consulted with facility staff on a variety of issues (up 19 percent).

How well we Kentuckians care for our seniors — the men and women who built this nation — speaks volumes about our values. We need public support for efforts to ensure we have the financial resources to continue protecting and serving the “Greatest Generation” and generations to come.

Sherry Culp is president of the Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency of the Bluegrass, which serves 5,500 residents of long-term care facilities in 17 counties in central and south-central Kentucky. Contact her at sherryculp@ombuddy.org and 859-277-9215.

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