Celebrating 25 Years Serving Seniors

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The Colorado Long-Term Care Ombudsman and the Legal Assistance Developer Programs have called Disability Law Colorado home since 1988. 

Celebrating 25 Years

In 2013, Disability Law Colorado celebrated 25 highly successful and nationally recognized years as the home of Colorado’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, and the closely aligned Legal Assistance Developer Program.

Both programs operate under a contract with the Colorado Department of Human Services, Division of Aging and Adult Services and in conjunction with the 16 regional Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) to coordinate services statewide.

Ombudsman Program

Led by Colorado Long-Term Care Ombudsman, Shelley Hitt, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program coordinates volunteer and professional ombudsmen throughout the state who strive to improve the quality of life for the more than 36,000 residents of long-term care facilities.

Ombudsmen help to:

  • Resolve complaints about the facility or individual staff members, such as physical or verbal abuse and poor quality of care
  • Protect residents’ rights under the law—including the right to privacy in care and treatment and the right to voice grievances without retaliation.

Also working in the Older Americans Programs is Vinni Ferrara, who is an enthusiastic and very competent assistant. One of the local ombudsman sized up her efforts and contribution by letting us know that “Vinni rocks!”

In the past 25 years the role of the ombudsman has changed dramatically. Twenty-five years ago they handled complaints about cold food and lost clothing - today it is mental health, drug abuse, financial exploitation, and complex diagnoses such as debilitating head injuries.

At the same time, nursing homes are coping with very difficult issues such as patients returning from much shorter hospital stays and a lack of mental health care services. Nursing staff are often overwhelmed with the level of care that is needed and the complexity of residents’ problems.

Ombudsmen are called on to help solve these complex issues. Ombudsman work has become very challenging, but it’s also very rewarding to know you have touched someone’s life in a most positive way.”

- Marlene Miller, Ombudsman in Yuma

How We Help

Frail and infirm residents are so pleased to have someone take time to listen to their concerns, sit and hold hands, or share stories of the past.

Many residents are unaware of their rights and others are unable to assert them because of physical or mental disabilities. Sometimes ombudsmen must protect residents from the very people who should be helping them. Just one example is a case of financial abuse from last year.

Financial Abuse

A certified nursing assistant (CNA) took financial advantage of a female resident by playing on her emotions. Every few days, the CNA had a different story – she was struggling to buy books for school, she had just wrecked her car, or she couldn’t pay her bills.

The resident wanted to help because the CNA was always so nice to her and helped her when her cat needed to go to the vet. When another staff member learned from the anxious resident what was happening, she went to the administrator and the sheriff was called.

The CNA had cashed $1,500 of the resident’s checks, money she could not afford to give away. At first the resident didn’t want to press charges, but the local ombudsman helped her to understand that what the CNA had done was against the law and could affect other residents as well.

The ombudsman comforted the resident, and encouraged her to take action rather than simply being a victim. With the combined efforts of the ombudsman, the facility, a very compassionate sheriff, and an empowered resident, the CNA was charged with a felony and must pay restitution.

Legal Assistance Program

The Legal Assistance Developer Program, headed by Mary Catherine Rabbitt, works to increase legal services for older people in Colorado with low incomes.

Examples of urgent legal needs include:

  • Foreclosure or eviction notices
  • Problems qualifying for public assistance benefits
  • Being told that their benefits are being reduced or terminated
  • Harassment by a collection agency for unpaid bills
  • Financial exploitation by a relative or caregiver
  • Unwanted guardianship action
  • Family members or professional care givers trying to force them into a facility against their will
  • Denials, reductions, or terminations of public assistance benefits
  • Home modifications or services to allow them to continue living independently.

The financial reality for low-income seniors is that they simply cannot afford to hire a lawyer in private practice.

Many of them believe that they must endure exploitation by a family member, or that a government agency’s denial of benefits is the last word.

As Disability Law Colorado, in partnership with the Area Agencies on Aging, increases outreach to publicize the availability of assistance, more older adults are seeking help. Much of the work involves helping anxious seniors navigate the complex web of often conflicting rules and requirements. A frustrating example from last year:

Medicaid Denial

An older gentleman contacted our office in September 2012 regarding a Notice of Denial of Medicaid for his 90-year-old mother who is in a nursing home. The reason was “failure to provide information regarding the gross amount of her monthly Civil Service Annuity payment.”

The son had financial power of attorney, but the Civil Service Office of Personnel Management (“CSA”) refused to honor it and provide the needed information.

In the meantime, the son received a check payable to his mother from her deceased brother’s estate. The bank would not accept the check for deposit (in spite of his POA) and demanded the mother’s signature (which she was unable to provide because of her advanced dementia). At that point, the county proposed to terminate her Medicaid because of the receipt of this check.

Our Legal Assistance Developer, Mary Catherine, went to work on several fronts: contacting the civil service, organizing a local legal provider to assist the elderly son and his mother, and successfully arguing that the bequest was not an “available” resource to her because of her incapacity.

While his mother is now secure in her nursing home, the son went through a great deal of anxiety, fearing that he would be unable to provide for her needs.