Grass Roots Advocacy Works

There’s a lot of wringing of hands about the hijacking of public meetings by wackos whose idea of discussion is to behave like oafs.

As Congressional representatives return to their home bases this month for local meetings, stories abound about the raucous reactions of audiences.

The president’s proposals for health reform have been met in Florida and other states by screams from riled-up conservatives predicting a communist takeover if a public option is included in any health bill.

Senators report death threats. Discussion is drowned out by aggression.

Some responsible journalists are reporting on the millions of dollars that insurance companies and other organizations spend on media relations and advertising campaigns to foment and orchestrate the fear-based madness. But telling that story is complicated. For Internet and broadcast media with round-the-clock deadlines, photos and soundtracks illustrating violent behavior is easier. Just fill the screen. The wilder the better.

It’s enough to make a private citizen depressed. How can individuals without access to millions of media relations dollars and big-time lobbyists influence their representatives? If their point of view is not on television, does it exist? Can we do anything?

A local story says, “Yes, we can.”

Last week, in response to months of intense letter writing, one-on-one lobbying and other statewide efforts by those concerned about one of the most neglected groups in society, the frail elderly, Gov.

Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation (AB392) that immediately will restore $1.6 million over the next year for local Long-Term Care Ombudsman programs. That’s the organization that advocates for patients in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

“The bill will help ensure protection from abuse and neglect for California’s vulnerable and elderly residents of nursing care and assisted living facilities,” said an announcement from the office of Assemblyman Mike Feuer, (D) Los Angeles, co-author of the bill with Assemblyman Dave Jones, (D) Sacramento.

Funds for local programs will come from existing penalties paid by long-term care facilities that have failed to comply with federal laws for the protection of residents, meaning that AB392 has no General Fund costs

“This is such great news and shows what grassroots advocacy can do. I am absolutely thrilled. For our local program it will mean an influx of $46,000,” said Tippy Irwin, director of the Ombudsman Program for San Mateo County. She plans to hire a staff person to work with long-term care facilities on emergency management plans.

Last year in San Mateo County, volunteer ombudsmen investigated nearly 2,000 complaints, paid about 5,500 monitoring visits and provided consultations and in-service trainings to facility staffs.

While some programs around the state suffered drastic shortages as a result of the governor’s cuts, the San Mateo County program was maintained due to extensive fundraising efforts, cuts in hours and benefits for staff, strong local support and active volunteers, Irwin said. The county program operates from a rent-free space in Redwood City, courtesy of the city.

“We’re fortunate to have support from the county and local foundations,” Irwin said. “And we relied on volunteers.”

Last year, Schwarzenegger vetoed $3.8 million in funding for local Ombudsman programs, representing about half their funding. Their absence has had an effect.

In late June of this year, for example, a Northern California facility owner and one caregiver were arrested on suspicion of criminal abuse and neglect of a resident whose untreated pressure sores were so severe that they resulted in fatal sepsis. After the arrest, the two suspects posted bail and continued to collect payment to provide care for the six other facility residents. With funding restored for the next year, local Ombudsman programs will be able to respond to cases where similar reports of abuse are made, according to Feuer’s office.

“This is a victory for grass-roots advocacy,” Irwin said. “And a testament to an incredible group of ombudsmen.” And a lesson for us all. Quietly, away from the cameras and the screaming, this group of regular people who knew the facts, believed in their cause and were willing to spend time and energy educating their representatives about it conglomerates and corporations. Maybe what we thought was the beaten-down American dream still survives.

“Grass Roots Advocacy Works” by Joan Aragone was originally published on for the Contra Costa Times

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