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Health News Florida

Long-term care complaints up

By Michael Peltier
12/20/2010 © News Service of Florida

Complaints are up while the number of volunteers and staff are down in the office that oversees quality control in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities across the state.

A sluggish economy is taking its toll on the ability of retirees to volunteer their time, according to an annual report released Monday by the Florida Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, established in 1975 to improve health care for the millions Floridians who call such facilities home.

At the same time, the number of complaints filed with the consumer watchdog has risen to its highest level since the program began, with the number of complaints up 8.8 percent for the 12 months ending Sept. 30 compared to the year before.

"Volunteer ombudsmen investigated more complaints this year than they have ever investigated in the 35-year history of the program, a total of 9,098 complaints," Elder Affairs Interim Secretary Charles T. Corley said in as statement accompanying the report's release.

An industry spokeswoman said the ombudsman's role is critical to ensuring quality care, a focus shared by the more than 650 long-term care facilities across the state. Kristen Knapp, a spokesman for the Florida Health Care Association, say the ombudsman's report also shows that 98 percent of respondents say their concerns were quickly resolved.

"Our facilities are committed to quality care," Knapp said. "In Florida, we have some of the highest staffing ratios in the country."

The ombudsman program uses volunteers to field complaints, investigate and intervene in the cases involving residents at nursing homes, assisted living facilities and adult family care homes. The $3.2 million program receives about $1.5 million from the state, with the remainder coming from federal funds. The agency said that during the last year it saved Floridians $1.8 million in long-term care costs.

Resident care and rights were the top two areas of concern in Florida nursing homes during the period, accounting for more than two-thirds of all complaints, the report found. Among those residing in assisted living and adult family care homes, quality of life and resident rights issues made up 64 percent of all complaints.

Among the program's biggest challenges is finding volunteers. Last year, the program completed its duties with fewer volunteers, a reflection of the prolonged economic slowdown.

The report said the number of volunteers fell from more than 400 last reporting year to just under 380 this year. The slow-paced economy has forced a number of individuals to return to full-time employment, according to Brian Lee, program director.

During the same period, the number of paid staff fell by nearly 30 percent.

"I'm proud to serve a program that relies almost entirely on the dedication of volunteers," Lee said. "Complaint investigations rose and all administrative facility assessments were completed despite there being fewer volunteers than in recent years."