A statewide volunteer advocacy program for nursing home and assisted living residents has been crippled by conflicts of interest and political meddling by the governors office and state elder affairs administrators, a federal report says.
The U.S. Administration on Aging, which investigated the alleged political firing of an outspoken head of the states Long-term Care Ombudsman Program, charged in a strongly worded, 31-page report Thursday that the volunteer group has become so hamstrung by politics that volunteers can not effectively advocate for frail elderly and disabled people who cannot protect themselves.
Release of the report comes at a critical time: On Friday, the day after its release, the state Department of Elder Affairs, which houses the ombudsman program, fired its Miami administrator, Clare Caldwell, whose most recent evaluation, in June, described her as an invaluable employee who is committed to promoting the best care and quality of life for residents. Caldwell said her bosses refused to tell her why she was fired, except to say that she served at the will of the [agency] secretary, and her services were no longer desired.
I dont understand how this can happen, Caldwell told The Miami Herald Friday morning. I dont have any idea why Im being fired.
Ive always thought that my allegiance is to the public, Caldwell said, adding: Thats not what they want.
The office of Gov. Rick Scott refused on Friday to discuss Caldwells firing, or the report, which tied interference in the program directly to the administration.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Elder Affairs, Ashley Marshall, also declined to discuss the report, though she did release the agencys eight-page response to federal aging administrators.
Floridas Ombudsman Program exists to benefit and protect the residents of long-term care facilities, who are among the most frail and vulnerable populations in the delivery system. The Department understands and respects the vital needs for an independent [ombudsman] to advocate on behalf of residents without the pressures of external influences, wrote Charles T. Corley, the agencys secretary.
As to Caldwells termination Friday, Marshall told The Herald in an email: It is not within standard departmental protocol for me to comment on personnel matters.
Brian Lee, the former ombudsman at the center of the controversy, called the report the first step toward vindication of the ombudsman program. This is a step in the right direction toward ensuring the program is an independent voice for residents, he said.
From the beginning, the report said, Floridas ombudsman program was beset by a conflict of interest: The Department of Elder Affairs develops licensing rules for all assisted living facilities, or ALFs. But the department also holds the authority to appoint or terminate ombudsmen who are supposed to have the authority to criticize such rules. Florida, the report said, has created an organizational conflict of interest.
Elder affairs administrators, the report said, openly admitted they do not support the spirit of federal rules that guarantee the independence of elder advocates and allow volunteers to take positions which may be contrary to the positions of the elder affairs department or other sister agencies of the governor.