The Department of Aging and Long-Term Services in June dismissed Sondra Everhart, who served for more than a decade as state long-term care ombudsman.
In firing Everhart, the department said reports of ombudsman visits to boarding homes in the Las Vegas, N.M., area were exempt from disclosure under the state Inspection of Public Records Act and shouldn’t have been provided by Everhart to the Journal in April in response to a written request under the act .
Everhart’s firing was disclosed in a lawsuit filed by her attorneys in state District Court in Santa Fe.
The lawsuit says Everhart was legally authorized to release the records to the Journal and that, contrary to the position of the Department of Aging and Long-Term Services, the documents were adequately redacted to protect the identities of residents of boarding homes.
The lawsuit also says Everhart was fired by the department in retaliation for her advocacy for the elderly. That included her request that the Department of Aging and Long-Term Services do more to protect the elderly from financial exploitation, her proposal that the ombudsman office be separated from the department and her attempts to combat Medicaid fraud by the department.
Everhart said in an interview Tuesday that the ombudsman office is supposed to operate independently under federal and state law, but that the Department of Aging and Long-Term Services didn’t give her that independence.
She said she was fired “because I’m not a bobblehead.”
Her lawsuit seeks financial damages under the state Whistleblower Protection Act and the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act.
A spokesman for the Department of Aging and Long-Term Services said the agency hadn’t yet seen the lawsuit, but he said Everhart is a disgruntled former employee.
Under state law, all ombudsman records pertaining to clients, patients and residents are confidential and don’t have to be disclosed under the Inspection of Public Records Act.
However, state regulations require that the ombudsman make a reasonable effort to grant a records request when it is possible to do so without revealing client identifying information.
Everhart redacted names of boarding home residents from the reports provided to the Journal, but the department said the reports “imply the identities of complainants and residents, and include identifying information such as place of residence, and in some instances, age and circumstances of boarding.”
Linda Hemphill, an attorney for Everhart, was unsuccessful in persuading the department not to dismiss Everhart.
Hemphill argued in a letter to the department that Everhart was legally obligated to release the records and that the redactions were sufficient to protect the identities of boarding home residents.
Hemphill also said the complaints that led to the boarding home visits ranged from 2 to 5 years old and that the chances of a person still living in the same home were unlikely. The boarding homes provide housing and meals to people with mental illness released from the state Behavioral Health Institute.
The Department of Aging and Long-Term Services informed the Journal in May that it believed the records of nursing home visits were improperly provided to the Journal and requested that the newspaper refrain from releasing any resident identifying information.
Everhart, who worked for the state Department of Health before becoming long-term care ombudsman, was paid about $81,000 a year in the job. She was an employee in the merit-based classified system and not a political appointee.
Employees in the ombudsman office make regular visits to nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to investigate complaints, help resolve resident concerns, ensure quality care and advocate for resident rights. Visits to boarding homes stopped after they were deregulated several years ago.