Health News Florida has learned that Florida has a new Long-Term Care Ombudsman, a position that has been vacant for almost a year.
The state appointed longtime Department of Elder Affairs employee Michael Phillips to become the chief advocate for nursing home and assisted living facility residents.
He takes over about 10 months after the former ombudsman abruptly resigned, leaving Florida without someone solely dedicated to the role during the coronavirus pandemic.
Nearly half of the deaths in Florida related to COVID-19 are tied to long-term care facilities.
Carol Carr, director of the department's Division of Internal and External Affairs, which oversees the ombudsman program, had taken over responsibilities in the interim as she continued to manage the division.
But elder care advocates said residents needed a watchdog solely focused on their needs.
"Florida is beyond a 'hotspot,' it's burning in flames, and these nursing homes and assisted living facilities need assistance STAT," said Brian Lee, a former ombudsman who now directs the advocacy group Families for Better Care.
He recently complained about the ombudsman situation to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which told him this week about Phillips' appointment.
“I think it's about time,” Lee said. “I think it's a top-notch hire, he's an outstanding advocate for residents, he's had a great familiarity with the ombudsman program, he's worked in it for 14 years.”
Phillips is currently serving as Regional Manager for the North Region of the program.
As state leader, he'll direct a program that is mostly made up of volunteers who investigate complaints about long-term care facilities and work with residents and families to improve care.
Like most visitors, these volunteer ombudsmen have had restricted in-person access to nursing homes and assisted living facilities since the pandemic began and have had to handle inspections virtually.
"I think they're still trying to do something to help residents and make sure they're safe and protected, but it's really tough right now when you can't be in the building," Lee said.
Lee said he hopes Phillips listens to residents who have been isolated by the coronavirus and that he works closely with Gov. Ron DeSantis to improve his efforts to curb the spread.
He said he also hopes Phillips will echo advocates' calls to provide nursing homes with rapid molecular testing machines, which health experts consider to be more accurate than the rapid antigen tests the federal government is deploying. DeSantis recently said he's considering reopening facilities for visitaiton with the help of rapid tests.
"It's all about the right kind of test, and the right test is molecular rapid testing machines," Lee said. "So hopefully they get the rapid testing figured out, so that the residents can be safe, the caregivers can be safe, and we can get the families, the visitors and maybe even the ombudsmen back into these buildings by getting them tested on-site quickly and safely."
The Department of Elder Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.