health & science

Ombudsman to monitor our most vulnerable

Privately-run dementia units will soon be subject to more rigorous inspections, with the Ombudsman set to take up the role.

The watchdog has been handed the power to randomly inspect about 180 of the facilities, which are currently subject to a Ministry of Health auditing system.

It’s an expansion of the Ombudsman’s current role under the United Nation’s Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), which sees it monitoring state-run dementia facilities as well as other sites including prisons.

Under the changes, gazetted by Justice Minister Andrew Little on Wednesday, the Ombudsman will also begin monitoring those locked up in court cells.

Cases of shocking treatment at rest homes generate sporadic news coverage every few years.

The most recent flurry was a series by the NZ Herald, which uncovered a litany of shocking cases including one where an elderly man was found with maggots in his wounds.

It’s these types of confronting cases that led to Peter Boshier, the Chief Ombudsman, realising that his office’s work needed to be expanded in order for New Zealand to meet its international obligations.

The new mandate allows his office to monitor and investigate privately-run dementia units with locked facilities where people, mostly elderly, are detained because of their vulnerability.

“There are some excellent facilities out there and there are some terribly dodgy ones."

With the number of people with dementia expected to triple by 2050 it was a seminal day following many years of discussion, Boshier said.

“My sense is everyone will welcome it. You have followed anecdotes of incidents that have occurred in privately-run dementia units that have not been good but I don’t think we really know the facts efficiently to know if we have a substantial problem and I think this will tell us. It will open a door and shine a light.”

It’s expected to take about a year for the Ombudsman to consult with the industry and put together a budget bid for the extra work.

The cost of the extra layer of inspections - and who will bear it - is something that concerns the industry.

Simon Wallace, chief executive of the Aged Care Association, said rest homes already paid between $5000 and $8000 for mandatory three-year audits that were very thorough, and $3000 to $5000 for random spot audits.

Both of these were carried out by the Ministry of Health, but it would be a burden for smaller homes if they had to cover any of the costs involved in the Ombudsman’s work, he said.

Wallace will meet with Boshier next week to discuss how the new monitoring will be undertaken, including how it will work alongside the current HealthCERT audits.

“At the end of the day, we all want to protect this vulnerable group of New Zealanders and ensure they receive outstanding care,” he said.

The robustness of the audit system currently in place was questioned by Grey Power.

President Mac Welch said the organisation had been lobbying successive governments for some time about beefing up inspections of rest homes.

It was still pushing hard for the creation of a senior citizen commissioner with the power to prosecute, but it was pleased with the Ombudsman’s new role.

“There are some excellent facilities out there and there are some terribly dodgy ones," Welch said.

“The only way you can be sure they are providing the services that are being paid for is regular, unannounced inspections.”

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