September 7, 2013
Florida bills itself as a haven for retirees.
Come on down! Bring your pension! Leave your kids! Life is always pleasant in the Sunshine State!
Well, except when your rest-home assistant leaves you festering in your own waste.
Or without your medicine.
Stories like those were common a couple of years ago — everything from a 71-year-old man with schizophreniawho died from scalding water in a bathtub to a 75-year-old retired priest whose body was found ripped apart by alligators after he was allowed to wander off unsupervised.
With elderly residents dying nearly once a month from abuse and neglect, Florida politicians vowed to crack down.
I'm not sure it was the humanity they were worried about as much as the economy. A growing corpse count was bad for the retirement business.
Only the reform never really came. A task force yielded few concrete changes. And now, the state agency charged with checking on neglected elderly residents is a mess.
The head of the program abruptly retired. Another top official resigned. An internal investigation is underway.
"It's no better than it was before," said Brian Lee, the head of a national nonprofit, Families for Better Care. "We never got the reform. It was a charade."
If Lee sounds indignant, he has good reason. He used to run Florida's elderly watchdog program — for both Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist — until Gov. Rick Scott forced him out in early 2011.
At the time, Lee's army of volunteer ombudsmen — trained citizens who made both surprise and resident-requested visits to facilities — had a 98 percent satisfaction rating from the residents and families they served.
But Lee's dogged approach — particularly his efforts to highlight facilities that put profits over safety — made him unpopular with the industry.
So Scott ousted him — a move that investigators with the U.S. Administration on Aging said was meant "to stop Mr. Lee from carrying out his duties" — and replaced him with a more industry-friendly leader.
Then things got worse.
Legislators began talking about making it harder for the volunteer watchdogs to do their jobs, and they lowered the minimum number of hours of care that homes must provide.
Our mothers, fathers and grandparents deserve better.
Not because retirement is big business in Florida — but because it's simply the right thing to do.
I'm not sure everyone agrees. Recently, the state's ombudsman program sent out a blistering news release, saying all the negative press about the program was unfair to the hardworking volunteers.
It called the problems "imagined" and the concerns "misrepresentations."
Let's be clear. There's nothing imagined about the recent resignations, the ongoing investigation or the efforts to weaken safeguards.
And I've never doubted the commitment of the volunteers. It's the politicians and some of the bureaucrats who worry me.
Elderly residents — especially those who don't have family nearby to check on them regularly — deserve vigilant watchdogs with the power to protect them.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Scott said he agrees — that the governor "is committed to protecting Florida's elderly community and believes the ombudsman program provides important protections for those living in long-term care facilities."
If he truly believes that, he has an opportunity to prove it — by appointing a new, permanent lead ombudsman who won't cower to anyone, whose only interest is protecting vulnerable elderly citizens who can't protect themselves.
He could even make a pitch to bring Lee back. That would speak volumes about serious commitment.
Reputable facilities — which constitute the majority of Florida's homes — would have nothing to fear. They should welcome high standards, unannounced visits and vigilant watchdogs.
It's only the shoddy ones — where residents go unfed and unmedicated, where roaches have been spotted in pantries and where hair has gone unwashed for weeks — that would object.
And who in their right mind, or of pure heart, would ever cater to them?
SOURCE: The Orlando Sentinel
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