Three years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, New York state lawmakers like Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim are worried the residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities are still vulnerable.
"These individuals are often isolated, lonley, they often have mental health issues," Kim said. "They just need someone to show up, knowing that we care."
Lawmakers are considering more funding for an oversight program in nursing homes and long-term care facilities as the state budget negotiations are in full swing in Albany.
Kim, the chairman of the Assembly Aging Committee, wants the additional funding for the program to be included in his chamber's version of the budget as a first step toward securing money in a broader budget agreement by April 1.
"We need to center the solutions around the families, the workers that are on the ground, that have real time intelligence on the ground," Kim said. "We should be centering our solutions around them, but we haven't done that."
The long-term care ombudsman program in New York relies on federal funding and a largely volunteer force of people to conduct visits and speak with residents. Republican Assemblyman Scott Gray said the program can be improved.
"It needs greater oversight," Gray said. "This program needs to be strengthened. I think there needs to be a closer, working relationship with the Department of Health."
Lawmakers spent more than four hours on Thursday speaking with advocates for nursing home residents nearly three years since a controversial decision by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo that barred nursing homes from turning away COVID-19-positive patients.
About 16,000 residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities in New York perished during the initial months of the pandemic. That included Daniel Arbeeny's father. Arbeeny was among the family members who testified to lawmakers urging them to bolster oversight of vulnerable people.
"Our parents were locked away from us," Arbeeny told lawmakers. "Those we love and honor the most were locked away, couldn't speak to them, we couldn't see them because we would bring in COVID. Yet our government was bringing in COVID."
They heard from family members of those who died in nursing homes and from AARP's Beth Finkel a more professionalized ombudsman program that could save lives and provide a critical eye in the facilities -- including when a public health emergency is underway.
"That's why we need professional people who can go in there and make sure that no matter what the situation is, no matter what the calamity may be, they can still can go in and look out for those fragile residents," she said.
Stefan Foster, a former volunteer ombudsman in nursing homes and now a policy researcher, says creating a professional corps of nursing home ombudsman will better serve residents.
"More professional staff to assist volunteers and to help follow up with very complex case work for residents would help serve the resident population more effectively," Foster said.
A recent study from AARP New York found most nursing nursing homes in the metropolitan area over a three month period did not receive a single visit from an ombudsman.
The group has called for a $15 million increase in the program in order to add 235 full-time workers in order to meet the goal of weekly visits at 1,400 adult care facilities and nursing homes in New York.