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County takes over patient-advocacy program

March 8, 2013

An organization that has befriended, defended and advocated for local long-term care facility residents for decades is scheduled to be permanently dismantled at the end of the month, with its services to then be provided by the county.
“After nearly 23 years as the state-designated provider of long-term care ombudsman services in Inyo and Mono counties, Ombudsman Advocacy Services of Inyo & Mono will close its doors on March 31,” OASIM Executive Director Kathyrn Williams said.
Inyo County Health and Human Services will take the ombudsman advocacy reins. (Ombudsman are people who are appointed to investigate complaints of maladministration on behalf of another individual and attempt to rectify the situation.)
At its Nov. 6 meeting, the Inyo County Board of Supervisors voted, four to one, to place the ombudsman program under the HSS umbrella as part of “pilot program” for the contract period of April 1, 2013 through June 30, 2016.
HHS Director and Eastern Sierra Area Agency on Aging Executive Director Jean Turner said that there would be a smooth continuity of service to residents of Bishop Care Center and Sterling Heights Assisted Living in Bishop and the Southern Inyo Hospital’s Skilled Nursing Facility in Lone Pine.
HHS is well on its way to implementing its ombudsman services pilot program, Turner said. The burgeoning ombudsman program has already received its official designation from the California Department of Aging. Specific performance outcomes and reporting periods are being developed. HHS has also hired an ombudsman coordinator and is looking for volunteers.
While Turner didn’t name the new HHS supervisor/ombudsman coordinator, she did say that the woman who comes to HHS with “an advocacy/ombudsman background” would start in the next few weeks.
“We had hoped that Kathryn (Williams) might want to apply but she didn’t,” Turner said. “I want to publicly acknowledge Kathryn’s two decades of outstanding service in the Eastern Sierra. She and her volunteers did an excellent job.” Turner emphasized that this change “in no way reflects on” OASIM’s performance.
Turner said that “with an aging population that is increasing, we’re looking for ways to serve them better.” HHS has been looking for a way to augment and expand those services. “We had no funding for volunteer recruitment,” Turner said, however the ombudsman program is state-mandated to be staffed by volunteers and is funded to recruit them, train them and put them through an internship process.
Therefore, HHS decided to bring the ombudsman services in-house. Ombudsman funding will pay for half of the supervisor’s salary and the remainder of the funding goes to recruitment, she said.
“We’re hoping that (OASIM) volunteers will come over” to HHS, Turner said, adding that the agency “will do a great outreach to volunteers in April.” HHS is hoping to increase the number of volunteers OASIM operated with as well as attract volunteers who might want to work in “a variety of other senior services programs,” Turner said.
HHS is especially interested in resurrecting the program formerly called Linkages, which focused on mental health issues among homebound elders, Turner said.
“We need another set of eyes and ears to identify issues such as depression, alcoholism and prescription drug mismanagement” so HHS can bring in the appropriate professionals and refer clients to needed services, she said.
In the meantime, HHS plans to provide continuous ombudsman advocacy to long-term care facility residents throughout the program’s transition from OASIM to HHS management, Turner said. To that end, Social Services Director Marilyn Mann has completed the ombudsman certification process and anticipates receiving her credential in the very near future. Mann will run the program and train the incoming ombudsman coordinator until the newcomer is fully certified, Turner said.
The picture is not optimistic for the soon-to-be-dismantled OASIM (pronounced “awesome” by its staff).
OASIM founding board member and Board President Patricia Garner said she believes the organization has upheld its mission “and would continue to do so if given the opportunity.” That’s why the Board of Supervisors’ decision “was both a surprise and devastating to our staff and volunteers,” which have met or exceeded “many of the statewide performance benchmarks … without cutting other services.”
OASIM volunteers visit all facilities twice monthly though the state only requires once-quarterly visitations. And “complaints are generally resolved within three to five days,” an unusually speedy turn-around time, Williams said. “If they call me today, I’ll be there in the morning, in most cases,” she said.
Strong advocacy is vital to the often under-represented members of society in long-term care facilities since many of them no longer have family, Williams explained. These facilities are usually “their last home and they are afraid to complain, fearing they may be evicted. (We provide) impartial, yet caring” advocacy and even “a friend when needed.”
Trained, state-certified OASIM volunteers strive to ensure patients respectful, quality care, Williams said, by becoming familiar with residents, their families and facility staff. They observe patient-staff interactions, listen to concerns and investigate and resolve complaints and problems. OASIM also provides in-service trainings for facility staff and public educational presentations about long-term care issues, services, resources, residents’ rights and recognizing and reporting elder abuse.
Williams noted that, “Under the Older American’s Act, the long-term care ombudsman program was developed to ensure quality care and respect for the rights” of nursing home and assisted-living facility residents.
Williams said she will miss the many “wonderful volunteers” and senior service providers with whom she’s worked over the last 15 years.
“We want the residents and their families to know how much we appreciated the opportunity to work with them and help them to maintain their quality of life,” Williams said.

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