SOME 7,000 D.C. residents live in the city's nursing homes and in the hundreds of licensed and unlicensed residences for invalids. For them, the Long Term Care Ombudsman Program is invaluable. Its five staff members and 60 volunteers investigated nearly 1,000 complaints this year and resolved about three-quarters of them.
Ombudsman programs were authorized through the federal Older Americans Act to investigate complaints against nursing homes and to act as advocates for residents who have no legal guardians or family support. The District's program has been run -- with federal and D.C. funds -- through Legal Counsel for the Elderly, a nonprofit group. A bill now pending before the D.C. Council would strengthen the ombudsman's powers -- a good idea.
The bill, introduced by council member H. R. Crawford, would give the ombudsman "complete access" to the facility being investigated, including access to any records. That raises a question. What if, as occasionally happens, the ombudsman needs to see a resident's medical records? Can the D.C. Council write legislation that increases the ombudsman's effectiveness without jeopardizing a patient's right to privacy?
The answer is yes. The city, through its Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, already has the right to see medical records. By making the ombudsman a city official, under the restrictions that already exist on officials' use of medical records, the council is adding the authority the ombudsman needs to investigate complaints quickly and thoroughly.
There are now five administrators in three local ombudsman offices. There should be just one ombudsman -- appointed for a specific term -- and that person alone should have access to confidential records. The volunteers would continue their weekly visits to nursing homes and other facilities, reporting -- as they now do -- any cases requiring further investigation.
In a recent senior citizens hearing before the D.C. Council, many complaints were heard about conditions in nursing homes. Those invalids deserve a stronger advocate. Giving more authority to the ombudsman program is the proper way to do it.