Fewer than half of Long Island nursing homes and long-term-care facilities...

Fewer than half of Long Island nursing homes and long-term-care facilities received a visit from a federally mandated watchdog during 2022's second quarter, the AARP found. Credit: Newsday/Jessica Rotkiewicz

Fewer than half of Long Island nursing homes and long-term-care facilities received a visit from a federally mandated watchdog during 2022's second quarter, leaving many of the state's most vulnerable without a critical advocate, according to a new report by AARP New York.

The findings come as the state approaches the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many seniors locked down and struggling for care and the state's ombudsman program short on volunteers to perform the visits.

Representatives from the state Long Term Care Ombudsman Program failed to visit nearly 61% of Nassau County's 105 nursing homes, assisted living and adult care facilities — 64 in total — from April 1 through June 3, the AARP report found.

In Suffolk, nearly 42% of the county's 130 facilities — a total of 54 — went without an ombudsman visit during that three-month period, according to the report.

What to know

  • Fewer than 50% of Long Island nursing homes, assisted living and adult care facilities received a visit from a federally mandated ombudsman during the second quarter of 2022, according to a new report by AARP New York.
  • Statewide, 52% of the 1,400 elder care facilities, and almost 80% of sites in New York City, did not receive a visit during that period from an ombudsman, whose job it is to addresses complaints from seniors and individuals with disabilities living in long-term care facilities.
  • The ombudsman program is largely staffed with unpaid volunteers, many of whom never returned after the COVID lockdowns and the state has had difficulty attracting new volunteer

Ombudsmen interview residents and work with them and the facility to resolve complaints, and when necessary, refer the issue to the state health department, according to the program's website.

"It's unconscionable," said AARP New York State director Beth Finkel at a news conference Tuesday in Albany calling for increased funding for the program.

 "We have our loved ones there," Finkel said. "We have our family members. We have our neighbors there. And we are leaving them not protected at all."

'Disgraceful, yet preventable'

Statewide, 52% of 1,400 elder care facilities — nearly 79% in New York City alone — did not receive a visit from an ombudsman between April 1 and June 3, state data shows. During the first quarter of 2022, that figure was 96% in New York City, according to the data. 

And only 9% of facilities statewide received a weekly visit — the stated goal of the program — from an ombudsman during the second quarter of 2022, the AARP said.

"These failures are disgraceful, yet preventable," said State Sen. Cordell Cleare (D-Manhattan), chair of the Senate Aging Committee. "They're not only disgraceful. They are dangerous to the health and welfare of our seniors." 

Claudette Royal, who runs the ombudsman program from the State Office for the Aging, said many volunteers never returned after the COVID-19 lockdowns, leaving her team short staffed.

"We're still of course trying to recruit volunteers, but it is a challenge to meet that visitation need," Royal said.

She adds: "there are not enough ombudsmen to cover all of the facilities currently."

Gov. Kathy Hochul's 2024 budget proposal includes $3.69 million for the ombudsman program, identical to the year before. Advocates Tuesday urged Hochul to boost that total to $15 million, enough to hire 235 full-time staffers.

The federal Older Americans Act requires every state to have an ombudsman program that addresses complaints from seniors and individuals with disabilities living in long-term-care facilities. 

The program neither conducts licensing and regulatory inspections or investigations, nor offers direct care for residents, according to its website.

In New York, the ombudsman program includes advocacy services provided through regional nonprofits.

The Mineola-based Family and Children's Association manages a team of three full-time paid ombudsmen in Nassau, one part-timer and 19 unpaid volunteers. The Huntington-based Family Service League runs the program in Suffolk, which includes three full-time ombudsmen, three part-timers and 19 volunteers.

Lisa Stern, executive vice president for senior programs at the Family and Children's Association, said they have lost 50% of their ombudsman volunteers during the pandemic, most of whom were older and didn't want to go into nursing homes. The group now prioritizes nursing homes with quarterly visits while assisted living facilities and adult care facilities are visited on an as-needed basis, she said.

"The volunteer model is not really working anymore … because it's hard to get volunteers," Stern said. "Plus the level of training that's required of the volunteers is more than what most want to do."

Volunteer shortage

Statewide, the program has only 65 full- and part-time paid ombudsmen and 215 volunteers — a number that AARP says is insufficient to meet the state's goal of having one ombudsman for every five facilities.

Since 2016, the number of volunteers for the program has declined 71% while the hours of service provided by volunteers dropped 61%, according a January report from the Office of Aging. Meanwhile, the number of complaints received by program officials has increased by 430% since 2016, the state report said.

State officials said a recent recruitment campaign attracted 400 potential volunteers but fewer than 40 took the next steps to become a certified ombudsman.

"Even as nationwide volunteer shortages contribute to staffing issues in ombudsman programs, Gov. Hochul will continue working with the legislature and advocates on these priorities to ensure the health and well-being of aging New Yorkers," the Office of Aging said in a statement.

Assemb. Ron Kim (D-Queens), chairman of the Assembly's Aging Committee, said additional funding is needed for the ombudsman program to meet its goal to be a check on the nursing home industry.

"This isn't a plea of sympathy for older adults," Kim said. "This is a sound economic investment for the state of New York to make sure that our families can feel safe. That we have facilities that don't treat our older adults as if they're not human."

With Michael Gormley

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