AUGUSTA, Maine — Anyone with questions or concerns about long-term care in Maine needs Brenda Gallant’s phone number on speed dial.
Gallant heads the state’s Long Term Care Ombudsman Program, and when it comes to addressing the needs or concerns of some of Maine’s more vulnerable residents, she and her staff are staunch advocates.
“Our office exists to resolve any problem that any elderly person or disabled individual [has] in terms of access to long-term care, payments, quality of care or anything that interferes with their ability to get they care they need,” Gallant said. “Our services are free, confidential and statewide.”
The office, based in Augusta and funded through federal and state grants, dates back to the Nixon years, when reports from around the country drew attention of instances of substandard care in nursing homes.
“At that time the regulations governing nursing homes were different in each state,” Gallant said. “There were no standards across the states, and a real look was taken establishing consistent regulations and at the need for having someone to advocate for nursing home residents.”
In 1978 Congress created ombudsman programs for the elderly in each state.
The Older Americans Act, enacted in 1965, authorizes action the ombudsman office may take on behalf of its clients.
“It is our federal law that lets us do our work,” Gallant said. “We can enter into any long-term care facility, day or night, with no invitation, and they can’t ask us to leave or keep us out.”
Gallant and her 11-member staff along with about 50 volunteers respond to individual client needs and keep tabs on 355 of the state’s long-term care facilities, including non-specialized boarding homes, nursing homes, assisted living centers and private residences receiving home care.
Because it is a nonprofit organization, the ombudsman program is not under the control of any state agency or department, giving it the freedom to operate outside possible partisan political influences.
“We operated outside of state government,” she said. “The state has to know the state and federal dollars they give us are well spent, but the consumers tell us where the problems are, and [the consumers] are our boss.”
Gallant, who has been head of the agency since 1992, said she loves having the chance to help the people they serve.
“I have the most wonderful and ethical staff and volunteers,” she said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to do what we do. Every day we help somebody, every day we do something that matters.”
Cases handled in Gallant’s office range from helping clients deal with logistics of a move to navigating complex reimbursement issues.
“We have had people living in out of state nursing homes who want to come back to Maine,” she said. “That is very affirming when you can help someone come back to be close to their loved ones.”
Requests for help come from family members of long-term care receivers and directly from those receiving the care, she said, and they all get immediate, personal attention.
This is exactly what David Young found a year ago, when he called Gallant’s office looking for assistance for his son, Alec.
Alec, Young said, had just turned 21 and was graduating from his special needs school.
The young man has a medical condition that confines him to a wheelchair his entire life and makes it impossible for him to speak, eat or drink without the aid of highly specialized care and equipment.
“We have been blessed. Thanks to MaineCare Alec has gotten the services he needed,” Young said. “When our son ‘aged out’ of the school program this past June, we began to look into adult day programs for him.”
The Youngs modified their own home years ago to accommodate Alec and employ a night nurse to tend to their son so he can continue to live at home.
However, in the midst of researching adult day care options and preparing to transition Alec into an adult program, the Youngs learned the state assistance they had been receiving would pay for either the day program or the night nurse but not both.
“That was a bombshell for us. It came out of nowhere,” Young said. “When we got the news we’d have to choose either the day program or having a night nurse — it was devastating.”
The Youngs were not prepared to accept that choice. Alec, Young said, is a social and happy young man who thrives in an interactive environment that an adult program would offer. At the same time, he said, having a nurse come in from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. gives them time to “turn off our brains and recharge.”
Young made some calls and eventually found himself talking to Danielle Malcolm at the ombudsman’s office.
“When anyone calls this office, they don’t get a machine, they get a real person,” Gallant said. “That’s what I love about this job. People come to us, they tell you the problem, we figure out what is going on and what that person needs and we get it done.”
Her team includes experts in medicine, legal affairs, social work and geriatric care and operates with a $1 million annual budget.
It took time, but thanks to the Malcolm and the resources of the long-term care ombudsman program, the Youngs were able to navigate state funding requirements that support Alec’s day program and the continued services of a night nurse.
“I don’t know what we could have done without them,” Young said. “They knew the right people to talk to and the right avenues to go down. That made our nightmare a lot more manageable and sane.”
Which is the exact goal of Gallant’s office.
In another instance Gallant recalled a client who was unable to afford his medical copay because of an error made when calculating the amount he owed.
“He came to us, we found the error and got it fixed,” Gallant said. “That is an example of something that was not a huge problem in the sense of finding the solution, but it was a huge problem for the individual.
“When someone is at their wit’s end and feels no one can help them, it’s great to know you are the one who can help,” she said.
Members of her staff are a constant presence at legislative hearings on bills having to do with anything related to elder or long-term care in Maine and they work with facilities around the state providing programs and services aimed at increasing quality of care.
“Sometimes it does feel like you are swimming against the tide,” she said. “But I’m an optimist, and there is always this feeling that what we do is important work, that everybody we help matters.”
The Maine Long Term Care Ombudsman office may be reached by calling 207-621-1079 or online at maineombudsman.org.