A new national trade association for organizations that provide referrals and placements to senior living communities hopes to advance the profession, educate others about it and increase professional responsibility, aiding operators in the process, according to its leader.

The website for the National Placement & Referral Alliance went live on Tuesday, NPRA President Chuck Bongiovanni told McKnight’s Senior Living. He and others have been working behind the scenes since earlier this year, however, he added.

They have applied for 501(c)6 nonprofit status, named officers and board members representing franchisors and individual agencies, welcomed members and are forming committees to work on initiatives that have been developed.

“We estimate there are about 800 full-time referral and placement agents out there, and we have about 575 as members,” said Bongiovanni, whose day job is CEO of Gilbert, AZ-based CarePatrol Franchise Systems LLC, which has 150 offices across the country.

They’ve also been meeting with representatives of other advocacy organizations with an interest in senior living. “We’re meeting with them and telling them what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We’re getting some very good responses so far,” he said.

The group has identified four initiatives.

One, called Families Have Choices, will advocate against the terms-of-use clauses used by online referral services, which Bongiovanni said prevent local placement and referral agents from receiving fees for services they provide to potential residents and families who sign forms to obtain pricing information from the online services.

“What happens is, their names are locked up, because the online agencies have in their contracts [with operators] — and only the online agencies have in their contracts — that ‘If we give you the name first, we have to be paid,’ ” he said.

In some cases, Bongiovanni added, local agents are prohibited from interacting with people who seek their services. “The families unknowingly give up this [ability], and they don’t have any kind of right of rescission,” he said.

The matter can be complicated for communities, agents and families, Bongiovanni said, when one family member of a prospective resident conducts an online search while another contacts a local agent. “We’ve done our job, and according to the contract, [the online service has] done their job. Sometimes these facilities are in a pickle,” he said.

A second initiative, called Agents for a Fair Marketplace, would advocate that online referral agencies make clear to potential clients if they are part of a larger corporation that includes similar companies.

“When you go online, you see 10, 12 different companies,” Bongiovanni said. “They are not 12 different companies.”

The lack of knowledge could result in sensitive information being shared beyond where families intend, he said. “We’re hoping that maybe [referral companies] could be a little bit more transparent online.”

A third initiative will formalize a code of ethics and national best practices. The group has posted a working draft online that includes input from four established state organizations that now are affiliated with the NPRA, Bongiovanni said.

“We’re very passionate about what we do, and we’re very passionate about this industry,” he said. “I’ve been in this industry for 25 years. You hate to see a bad player cause problems, whether it’s an online agency or a local agency. That isn’t good for all of us as an industry. That’s why we want to home in on guidance — this is acceptable, this isn’t acceptable, and this is why. It isn’t all about making money, having to do as many placements as possible and finding ways to block out competition. We’re working with seniors here. We’re working with families. This is something that should be done with the right mindset.”

A fourth initiative will establish a national process for the certification of referral and placement agents, Bongiovanni said. Group members are discussing a test and certification criteria, he added, with the hopes of having a process in place within a year.

“These things are up in the air, but the important thing is that we’re all talking about making it a better situation for the communities and also for the families,” he said.

The societal need is great enough to support both referral websites and local agencies, Bongiovanni said.

“Don’t get me wrong. There are families out there that that [online] model is perfect for,” he said. “We’re just saying that for the families who realize that it isn’t for them, they should have the right to speak out to other people who can help them.”

McKnight’s Senior Living contacted online referral company A Place for Mom, which is tied to related sites (as are other senior living search websites), for comment on the new trade association but was told that company representatives were traveling and unable to comment.