TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Department of Elder Affairs has re-opened its hiring process for a state long-term-care ombudsman, as critics contend the first attempt at filling the post excluded a number of candidates with significant watchdog experience.
The new hire will be the third person in less than three years to lead the volunteer ombudsmen who visit assisted-living facilities and nursing homes in an effort to ensure that residents receive adequate care based on state and federal law.
"I think it’s really important that we have a highly-qualified individual, so I’m happy that we’re redoing the search," said state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.
Sobel is sponsoring a bill for the 2014 session that would tighten standards for assisted-living facilities, of ALFs, while AARP Florida has repeatedly warned that the state ombudsman’s is a crucial role as the state shifts seniors into Medicaid managed-care plans.
Leaders of the Department of Elder Affairs, meanwhile, have been dismayed that coverage of the ombudsman program frequently refers to "turmoil." The coverage has been driven primarily by the controversial departures of the last two state ombudsmen. The first, Brian Lee, is suing the department and two provider associations for his dismissal, while the second, Jim Crochet, was placed on administrative leave in late July, whereupon he retired and is still being investigated by the department’s inspector general.
Department spokeswoman Ashley Marshall said Friday she’d never seen an earlier short-list of 12 names, which has circulated behind the scenes and includes the state’s deputy ombudsman for legal affairs. Some candidates on the list had mid-level state jobs that did not involve overseeing the treatment of seniors. The list included an executive at a company that serves medical providers; a former nursing-home administrator, currently unemployed, and several program managers, analysts and consultants for other state agencies.
Among the applicants who were not included on the list were a member of Gov. Rick Scott’s ALF work group and the district ombudsman manager for the Duval County area.
Another applicant who did not make the list was Gerald Kasunic, the former long-term-care ombudsman for Washington, D.C. He also served as a federal liaison for the National Association of State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Programs and helped to write legislation, regulations and policies that affected state programs.
"One doesn’t just acquire all the skills or the education to become a long-term-care ombudsman director," Kasunic said by telephone. "There are so many different hats that you have to wear, and it’s hard to get all that expertise and experience in one position."
Lee, the former ombudsman who is suing the department, criticized the search process.
"Personally, I know of candidates who applied that have lengthy experience and expertise in both long term care and advocacy who are highly qualified that didn’t make the short list," said Lee, who now runs the advocacy group Families for Better Care.
But DOEA’s Marshall said she wasn’t aware of the existence of a first short-list.
"Generally, the applications are reviewed for those who screened-in and screened-out (meaning they either did or did not answer the minimum required questions)," she wrote in an email. "After that, applications are reviewed to see if state or federal requirements of the position are met by the applicant, from there resumes are compared to applications to make sure they match, and as in any organization, naturally the application piles get smaller and smaller. Each vacancy is unique, and we do not have a set group or committee who reviews an applicant pool."
Marshall said the re-opened job search would close Oct. 21 and that 68 people had applied so far. The secretary of the Department of Elder Affairs, Charles T. Corley, will make the final selection.
Last month, James Croteau, the interim state ombudsman, wrote that after two weeks on the job, he’d "expected chaos when I arrived in the office, but I found just the opposite….What is not generally reported in the media is the tremendous work of 370 trained volunteer ombudsmen across the state."
Croteau wasn’t available for comment Friday.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott, Jackie Schutz, said 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."
Sobel said she’ll keep a sharp eye on the new job search.
"There’s been some awful reports out there of terrible licensed and unlicensed ALFs, and we need to investigate and clear it up as soon as possible," she said.