The squeaky wheel gets the boot 

Volunteer ombudsman says he was fired for being too outspoken

In late November, the Florida Department of Elder Affairs sent a letter to the U.S. Administration on Aging outlining a series of steps it was taking to make sure it was in compliance with the U.S. Older Americans Act. Earlier this year the Administration on Aging came down hard on Florida for violating the spirit – if not the letter – of the law, when it came to how the state-run Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, which is supposed to keep an eye on conditions in assisted-living facilities and nursing homes across Florida, is being managed.

In the letter, the state promised to make sure that its Long-Term Care Ombudsman, Jim Crochet, had the ultimate authority to designate and fire volunteer ombudsmen who go into assisted-living facilities and nursing homes to inspect conditions on behalf of residents; it promised to give the ombudsman’s office unfettered access to the legislature to lobby for residents; and it vowed that the office would have the authority to issue press releases and speak to the media at will.

About a week later, Crochet fired four-and-a-half year volunteer ombudsman and staunch advocate for the elderly, Bill Hearne.

Though the Administration on Aging has closed its investigation – which was triggered, in part, when Gov. Rick Scott’s administration decided former ombudsman Brian Lee was too outspoken and replaced him in April with the more cooperative Crochet – some volunteer ombudsmen say they think Crochet is allowing the program to be undermined. Many volunteers, they say, have quit the program in frustration over what they see as political interference in its operations; others, like Hearne, have been abruptly booted out for expressing concerns that the program is in jeopardy. They say the current administration is cleaning house in an effort to remove the most outspoken in the volunteer corps.

Despite his years as a volunteer ombudsman in Miami, Hearne was told that he was being let go in December. His dismissal came just weeks after he spoke out at public meetings to insist that those currently in charge of the ombudsman’s office were letting industry interests get in the way of volunteers’ ability to protect the welfare of the elderly. First, Hearne says, he criticized an effort to restrict ombudsmen from doing inspections of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in favor of “resident interviews,” in which residents point out problems in each facility. Then, at a meeting in Altamonte Springs in early November, Hearne directly questioned Crochet about the hiring of Alberta Granger, director of professional development for the Florida Assisted Living Association, to train ombudsman program staff and managers. Hearne says it concerned him that Granger, a former consultant to the Munne Center, a troubled assisted-living facility in Miami that was closed in September after years of complaints and serious safety violations, was being hired by a program that is supposed to advocate for residents, not the industry.

“I said ‘I understand that Alberta Granger, who was the consultant of this Munne Center that has been closed, was hired to train the managers of this program. Mr. Crochet, is that right?’” Hearne recalls. “He looked at me, and if looks could kill, I’d be a corpse. I’d be in a casket right now. He said yes, but only so the ombudsmen could get an administrator’s view of an assisted-living facility.”

A few weeks later, he got the letter saying he was being let go.

Erica Wilson, communication and recruitment administrator for the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, would not specify exactly why Hearne was let go. By way of explanation, she sent a copy of the agreement that ombudsman volunteers must sign before participation in the program, including a code of ethics and a conflict of interest statement; she said that volunteers who are not doing a satisfactory job may be reassigned or “de-designated,” though that would be a “last resort.”

“The State Ombudsman has the authority to designate volunteers to represent and carry out the duties of the office of the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program,” she wrote in an email. “This authority would, conversely, include the State Ombudsman’s authority to de-designate individuals to represent the office.”

Hearne says he’s concerned that the volunteer ranks are being decimated, as dedicated volunteers are either being pushed out or are resigning in frustration. In Orlando Weekly’s last story about the ombudsman program (see “Neutering the Watchdogs,” Nov. 10), we reported that the Administration on Aging counted 258 active volunteers among the ombudsman’s ranks, down from a high of “nearly 400” the office reported to have in its 2009-2010 annual report; Wilson took issue with both of those numbers and said that there are 307 active volunteer ombudsmen and that the program “value[s] our volunteers and the important role they play in advocating for the health, safety, welfare and rights of long-term care facility residents.”

But some volunteers say they’re not feeling the love. “You can only intimidate and interfere with this program so long and you will begin to lose your most trained and seasoned ombudsmen, which I believe has already begun,” reads a resignation letter from former Orlando-area volunteer Sunny Pratt, who resigned this fall. “We had at one time a very smooth running program, had support from your position down to the newest ombudsman, but now there is a disconnect. In my unsolicited opinion, the Ombudsman Program is doomed unless you step up to the plate and demand changes, put teeth in the program and defend what we need most, and that is someone who cares about what is happening and willing to demand changes.”

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