As COVID-19 was wreaking deadly havoc in Chicago nursing homes last year, their residents needed advocates more than ever, but city and state officials allowed the office that provides that advocacy to limp along with half its staff positions vacant. Now, as the pandemic eases, officials have decided to staff the office up.
A funding boost by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration will double the number of “elder protective investigators” at the city’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program. Since last summer, that office has had just five of the 10 investigators required by the state, WBEZ revealed.
“We’re really pleased that the state has made this commitment,” said Fran Tobin of the Institutional Rescue and Recovery Coalition, composed of senior and disability rights groups advocating for Chicago nursing-home residents during the pandemic. “Having a fully staffed program is huge and adds to the lifeline that residents depend on.”
The Chicago office, housed in the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, advocates for residents at 158 nursing homes in the city. The issues range from severe neglect and abuse to more mundane problems such as broken elevators, Medicaid enrollment snags and insufficient access for families to visit.
The office is one of 17 long-term care ombudsman programs around Illinois coordinated and funded by the Illinois Department on Aging. Since last summer, the city’s five remaining investigators have each been in charge of 3,500 to 4,000 beds, nearly twice as many as allowed under conditions of a state grant for the work.
Chicago has fallen short of its 10-investigator minimum for at least a decade. The highpoint was 2015 to 2017, when there were eight. After that, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration failed to fill openings, allowing the number of investigators to fall to six by the time Lori Lightfoot replaced him in May 2019.
Last summer, another investigator left the program, leaving just five. The Lightfoot administration did not fill the opening, even as COVID-19 tore through the facilities and upended the industry.
At the time, nursing homes accounted for more than half of the recorded Illinois deaths due to COVID-19. Residents of the facilities were also facing intense isolation — physically separated from loved ones who could otherwise advocate for them. For several months last year, even state public-health inspectors were not entering the nursing homes, a crisis leading to a shake-up at the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The Pritzker administration, meanwhile, decided to allow the Lightfoot administration to find a nongovernmental organization to replace the city for the advocacy. But a city request for proposals last year did not pan out.
In March, Lightfoot’s administration said it was planning to issue another RFP in hopes of choosing a contractor to take over the program by this October.
But senior and disability-rights groups pushed for the office to be staffed up and they opposed the plan to privatize it. The groups focused their pressure on the Pritzker administration.
In a press release this month, State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) accused the state of “bargain shopping the ombudsman program,” and Chicago Ald. Maria Hadden (49th Ward) called it “unconscionable” for the Pritzker administration to go along with the planned privatization “instead of fully funding” the program.
A statement Monday from Pritzker’s office says the funding to fill the investigator positions will come from the Department of Aging’s fiscal 2022 budget.
Now, Tobin said, advocates are pressing for the Pritzker and Lightfoot administrations to fill the city’s five vacant ombudsman positions within a couple months.
“We know that they’re capable of hiring people when they need to,” Tobin said. “And we want to see top-quality people hired for these positions, really committed to being advocates for the residents.”