Old-Age Wisdom

The state told Virginia Fraser to shut up, but she won't give up on the elderly.

The most stunning charges involved the privately owned O'Hara Regional Center for Rehabilitation in Denver. That center, which cared for people with severe disabilities, was sued in 1999 by former patients and their families who alleged that O'Hara's poor care had led to the deaths of several people from abuse and neglect. The plaintiffs provided a horrifying list of complaints, including those of helpless people being allowed to fester in their own waste, developing such severe bedsores that they required surgery. The lawsuit included stories of patients going unfed for days, not being bathed for months, and getting blood poisoning from untreated infections. Several staff members gave depositions in which they verified the accounts of horrible care. That lawsuit was eventually settled for $37 million.

The state's failure to close O'Hara or force it to change left many observers incredulous, but it was part of a pattern in which Colorado regulators refused to fully enforce laws meant to protect nursing-home residents from abuse. It was that sorry record that brought the FBI into the offices of the state health department last fall. While no charges have been filed, dozens of employees have been interviewed in a division said to be in disarray. The FBI probe was likely prompted by the O'Hara scandal. Several officials in other states have been arrested and accused of taking bribes from nursing homes they were supposed to be regulating.

For many, the O'Hara situation highlighted how crucial it is for the state to have a forceful advocate for seniors in the ombudsman's office.

Virginia Fraser recently resigned her position as director of the state ombudsman's office after twenty years.
Anthony Camera
Virginia Fraser recently resigned her position as director of the state ombudsman's office after twenty years.
Senator Sue Windels of Arvada was willing to take on Meridian in the legislature.
Anthony Camera
Senator Sue Windels of Arvada was willing to take on Meridian in the legislature.

"Having a strong and autonomous ombudsman program is really important," says Enid Cox, director of the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Denver. "There are more families facing the issue of how to provide for elders in need of care. The point of the ombudsman program is that it can get into all facilities and be a voice for the residents. Not having that would be a huge loss to all of us concerned about quality of care."

Another vital part of the equation is keeping the ombudsman program independent from political pressures, say those involved in elder care.

"There's all these players in nursing homes, but the ombudsman's office is the only one that's truly independent," says Pinon Management's Jerebker. "Advocacy needs to be independent; it should not have an agenda. If it's dictated by government or politics, then it really isn't advocacy anymore."

Cox says Virginia Fraser's resignation is a blow to seniors all over the state.

"It's heartbreaking that someone who's had such an excellent long-term career would need to terminate their position because she felt she couldn't do her job," Cox says.

The state is currently negotiating a new ombudsman's program contract with the Legal Center for People With Disabilities and Older People. Since Fraser's resignation, the state reportedly has backed off on some of its previous demands that the ombudsman be restricted from talking to the public.

Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Human Services, claims the department's position on the ombudsman's office has been misrepresented. She says her department simply wants to "coordinate" any public comments the ombudsman makes.

"We wanted to have a knowledge of what was being said to the media or what was being presented to the legislature," says McDonough. "If it's an issue of some controversy, we'd prefer they get together with us and we discuss how it would be responded to. This was not about trying to change the role of the ombudsman. It was about closer coordination with the human services department."

To Fraser, "coordination" sounds more like censorship. Anyone who has read the ombudsman's annual report knows Fraser is always careful to balance the complaints of residents with the perspective of nursing-home managers. Rabble-rousing is not what she's about, but she feels strongly that someone has to be there to defend elderly people when they are most vulnerable.

"The nursing homes have a really tough job," says Fraser. "Short staffing is at the root of a lot of the care problems. Many of the corporations [that own nursing homes] are still so bottom-line-oriented, they don't provide the care they should."

While Fraser is no longer running the ombudsman program, she still serves as a volunteer ombudsman at Cherrelyn. She started doing this before she resigned: In the midst of the political attacks on her office, she wanted to remind herself of just how important the ombudsman's work was.

"I felt like I wanted to get back to the basics," says Fraser. "I was feeling like I was getting out of touch with the nursing-home residents by not being there."

Cherrelyn is one of the biggest homes in Colorado, with 200 residents. Its managers pride themselves on cooperating with the ombudsman's office, which they view as a useful intermediary between residents' families and the facility. In a recent meeting, Fraser talked with the staff about doing a "residents' rights" quilt and bringing in a local quilting group to help. The managers told Fraser about a recent field trip to a Rockies game that became eventful when their bus broke down and they had to be rescued by RTD. At the request of residents, plans are also being made to buy a frozen-yogurt machine and new patio furniture.

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