The state's long-term care ombudsman Susan Buxton is preparing to re-enter long-term care facilities as state and federal authorities continue the proccess of slowly re-opening nursing homes and assisted living facilities, allowing more visitors in hopes of alleviating social isolation.
"We are now in the process of putting together our plan to be able to go back into the facilities," Buxton said.
For information on how to reach the ombudsman, visit here.
Long-term care ombudsmen are advocates for residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, handling complaints and helping to resolve problems. However, because they were not designated as "essential," they were not allowed into these facilities during the months since the pandemic hit, Buxton said.
"We've had to do our work virtually," Buxton said. Federal money has helped facilities improve their technological capability, she said, making that work go more smoothly.
Douglas McNutt, associate state director for advocacy with the New Hampshire office of the AARP and former director of the New Hampshire Bureau of Elderly and Adult Services, has expressed concern about the suspension of the program's in-person visits.
"We recognize that there are safety issues and we're not suggesting that the ombudsman go in without PPE, without testing and those sorts of things," McNutt said recently on The Exchange. "But we think that they could play a really important role in helping residents. And from my experience, the long-term care ombudsman is also helpful with facilities. They have the ability to be able to negotiate things, mediate things and to help make things better.”
Buxton said surveyers affiliated with the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services have recently begun annual certification surveys -- these are unannounced visits that can help identify problems in facilities that care for Medicaid and Medicare recipients. The program had been suspended due to the pandemic, Buxton said.
Even before that program resumed, these surveyers have been visiting facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks in order to conduct infection control surveys, Buxton said.
Officials and those charged with protecting long-term care residents have expressed concerns about potentially re-introducing the coronavirus into these facilities. It's been described as an agonizing balancing act -- allowing visits with families and others to help improve the psycho-social health of residents but also keeping the virus out, making sure there is adequate testing and PPE.
The disease has had devastating effects in these settings. In New Hampshire at one point, outbreaks at long-term care facilities accounted for about 80% of COVID-19 related deaths.
"This has been really challenging," Buxton said. "And I'm concerned because the numbers are going up."
Last week, state officials announced an outbreak of 47 cases at the Bedford Hills Center, 33 residents and 14 staff. Another outbreak was reported at the Warde Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Windham, three residents and one staff.