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Idaho Legislature calls for new, independent health and social services ombudsman

James Dawson/Boise State Public Radio

A bill that would create a new, independent health and social services ombudsman to hear complaints about services provided to children in foster care, protective supervision and residential treatment facilities in Idaho cleared its final legislative hurdle Monday.

The Idaho House of Representatives voted 50-20 on Monday to pass Senate Bill 1380. The Idaho Senate already voted to pass the bill earlier this month.

The bill would create a new office of health and social services ombudsman, which would be set up as a self-governing agency, independent of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and the Idaho Legislature.

Rep. Britt Raybould, a Rexburg Republican and the bill’s floor sponsor in the Idaho House, said the bill is necessary to create an independent process to hear complaints. Raybould said currently the only way for children, parents or foster parents who have a concern or complaint with Idaho Department of Health and Welfare services is to file a complaint with the department itself, which Raybould likened to asking the department to raise a red flag on itself.

“In the course of doing the research for this bill, the stories that I heard about teenagers being punished for daring to raise questions about their living conditions, for foster families being charged with potential claims of sexual predation – it is heartbreaking that this system that is intended to protect children and to help families come together is instead working against the very individuals within the system,” Raybould said during her floor debate. “This office is intended to provide an independent body that allows for complaints to be reviewed in their entirety. It allows for any concerns related to inequal or ill treatment to be addressed in a meaningful way, and to not be swept aside or ignored.”

Under the bill, a child receiving services or their biological or legal representative would be able to file a complaint with the new ombudsman. The ombudsman will accept complaints about services or an agency’s behavior that violate state rule, law or policy, as well as services that were imposed without adequate reason or were based on irrelevant, immaterial or erroneous grounds.

The bill also requires the new ombudsman’s office to produce an annual report on its work, as well as any recommendations based on the ombudsman’s work or fundings.

The bill calls for transferring three positions out of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to create the new office, which would feature the ombudsman, a client services analyst and an executive assistant. The bill also calls for transferring $470,000 from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to the new ombudsman’s office to pay for personnel costs, operations and standing up the office.

Some of the House Republicans who voted against the bill Monday expressed concern that the bill creates a new government entity.

Supporters of the bill countered by saying the bill isn’t really expanding the size of state government because it is transferring existing positions and funding away from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to create and pay for the new office.

The Idaho Senate already voted to pass the ombudsman bill 30-4 on March 7. The bill heads next to Gov. Brad Little’s desk for final consideration. Little may sign the bill into law, allow it to become law without his signature or veto it.

If the bill becomes law, it would take effect on July 1, the first day of the state’s new fiscal year.

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This story was originally publishedby the Idaho Capital Sun.