Ombudsman and Legacy: Roy Herzbach
“This has been the best job in the world. There was nothing that was more compatible with my moral and ethical system. I don’t feel like I have ever had to compromise my values.”
After almost 30 years, Legal Aid of West Virginia’s Long Term Care Ombudsman Director Roy Herzbach retired in early April. His parting words about his career as an Ombudsman for residents in long-term care settings reflect his dedication to ensuring the best for his clients and staff. As LAWV’s Ombudsman program transitions to new leadership, we wanted to highlight Roy’s tenure as an Ombudsman, and the important work the unit does for West Virginians.
What is an Ombudsman?
An Ombudsman is a general term for an advocate who handles complaints on behalf of the public. At Legal Aid of WV (LAWV), our Ombudsmen are advocates for residents in long-term care facilities across West Virginia. They handle complaints from residents, and work with staff, administration, family members, and community partners in addition to residents to resolve issues that exist in these long-term care facilities.
There are more than 300 total facilities in West Virginia that our Ombudsman staff visit, including nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and unlicensed long-term care homes. Every facility is covered in one of our Ombudsman regions, and we employ nine Ombudsmen and a director who cover these visits. Ombudsmen field complaints that run the gamut from smaller, easier to manage issues like food, noise, and visitors, to significant complaints of abuse, neglect, safety, hygiene, and care issues. Though some complaints are quicker to resolve, all are important issues to resident clients.
A Brief History
Roy Herzbach arrived in 1994 at what was then the Legal Aid Society of Charleston, by way of Atlanta, GA, where he served as the state’s Ombudsman Director for 7 years.
“Every state has an Ombudsman program; it’s federally mandated,” explains Roy. “Each state does it in its own way. We are proud of our preventative approach here in West Virginia. We really ask our staff to keep an open vision and approach.”
Ombudsmen work specifically for residents—a tough balance at times. Even with facility staff, family members, or other decision-makers in the picture, an Ombudsman’s client is the resident, first and foremost. The program encourages residents to provide feedback, even on the Ombudsman work, a philosophy encapsulated in a poster hanging in Roy’s LAWV office reading “Our residents are our final surveyors.”
“I am most proud of the way we have been able to change perception of Ombudsmen in West Virginia,” says Roy. “There used to be a bit more of an adversarial approach, but we want them to respect where we are coming from and try not to be antagonistic. It’s amazing to see how relationships have developed. Our staff now provide trainings on various topics to facility staff and other groups.”
The development of accompanying advocacy is also a point of pride for Roy as he looks back on his tenure, particularly the hiring of Suzanne Messenger through a Fellowship and creation of the LAWV Financial Exploitation Unit and statewide Financial Exploitation Advisory Commission. The Ombudsman unit also hired a Communications and Training Specialist under Roy’s leadership to further their ability to share information with those who can benefit and learn as Ombudsmen staff.
Roy led the Ombudsman Program through the significant challenges of serving a vulnerable and isolated population in long term care settings during COVID. Many of the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic remain, including staffing shortages and access to appropriate treatment and services.
“I’m grateful to Legal Aid of WV and our partners,” Roy says, in parting. “Even during difficult times, the validation and support of our work was tremendous.”
Best Wishes from Our Staff
From everyone at Legal Aid of WV, we wish Roy a Happy Retirement! Here are parting words from a few of his colleagues:
I have had the privilege of working with many excellent leaders and advocates in my time with Legal Aid. With his persistent and creative advocacy and his heart for the long-term care residents, Roy is at the top of my list of effective and inspirational colleagues.
Adrienne Worthy, LAWV Executive Director
Perhaps still my most vivid memory of Roy was his initial job interview, with a group of us assembled. Before we realized it, ROY was guiding US through a trust-building exercise he liked! “Holy moly, I think he’s running this interview more than we are,” I thought. Now, years later, I know that was true. How incredibly fortunate we were to entice Roy to leave Atlanta behind and come to West Virginia.
Speaking as a lawyer, working with Roy was always both challenging and rewarding. He brought tough cases to work through that required my best thinking and creativity and sheer hard work. At the same time, they were typically deeply emotional and rewarding.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone with as deep a commitment both to serving the client and to reconciling conflict and division in the process. It’s been a privilege and a joy to work together, and it’s one of the things I miss in my otherwise wonderful retirement. After years of laboring in this vineyard, I hope Roy’s retirement will be equally enjoyable.
Bruce Perrone, Retired LAWV Advocacy and Services Counsel
Roy is practical and realistic, and he is going to give you the honest truth.
I got to really learn how to be an Ombudsman from Roy. I think he is the epitome of what an Ombudsman is. He is such a great listener and such a great questioner. When I transitioned to the State Ombudsman position, I have had the privilege to be a colleague and continue to learn from him and maybe even teach him some things.
I think the value of the Ombudsman program is we get to be a trusted resource for our clients, and Roy has done a good job reinforcing that trust. That trust is an essential component of everything the Ombudsman does.
Suzanne Messenger, WV State Ombudsman
Roy definitely has a passion for the Ombudsman line of work, and it has influenced me to have that same passion. At times, Roy would accompany the regional Ombudsmen on our visits to our facilities. One particular day, I will never forget: we visited one of my “problem” facilities, and an aide pulled us aside privately to speak with us anonymously about the staffing shortage. This was fairly early on in my career, and to see the compassion and passion Roy showed to not only this aide but the residents who were affected by the staffing shortage left an impression on me that molded me into the Ombudsman I am today.
Ed Hopple, Ombudsman
I truly appreciate Roy being a caring, authentic individual and supervisor.
Marie Parker, Ombudsman
I would have to say, Roy is kind. He is very thoughtful about how to approach issues dealing with our clients. He is the best “boss” I have ever had, and whoever gets his position will have big shoes to fill. Roy was a great warehouse of knowledge. He had contacts we can only wish we had. Roy’s retiring is a tremendous loss to all of us and to the program. I will certainly miss him.
Polly Lafferty, Ombudsman
Working with Roy, even for such a short period of time, has been such a blessing to me. Roy is a force as he advocates for our residents, as well as in his support for those who had the pleasure to work with him. While Roy may be small in stature, don’t let that fool you because Roy truly is a giant among men.
Susan Wolford, Ombudsman Communications and Training Specialist