Wisconsin lawmakers from both political parties are calling for an audit of Wisconsin veterans homes after former staff and volunteers detailed accounts Thursday of inadequate care at state-run facilities.
At the same time, the administrator overseeing the state’s three veterans homes told legislators she’s confident the facilities provide quality care as they’re facing staff shortages exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republican lawmakers with a state Senate committee overseeing veterans grilled leaders of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs in a hearing broadcast by WisconsinEye. Legislators primarily focused on conditions at Union Grove in Racine County. Invited speakers referenced overworked staff and unsanitary conditions, which the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported last year.
An analysis by the paper showed Union Grove ranked among the top five facilities for the most violations and fines among 117 veterans homes certified by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The home has been cited for at least 76 violations since 2017 that include failure to investigate reports of abuse, prevent falls and medication mistakes. Partisan infighting on the committee broke out at times over which party or administration failed to address problems at the homes.
Ellen Jante volunteered for 10 years at Union Grove, and said her husband resided there for 8 years until he died in 2019. Reading from a letter she wrote to Gov. Tony Evers, Jante said one veteran reported waiting more than an hour for employees to help them use the bathroom, another said they hadn’t received a bath in two weeks. She said falls became common and medication errors occurred as staff worked overtime, and the facility hired agency staff at a higher rate to care for residents.
"Veterans deserve the best care possible because they sacrifice their lives for us, and I'm sure that you would all agree," Jante said. "Instead Wisconsin leadership has abandoned the veterans who reside in VA nursing homes."
Laurie Miller, who volunteered at Union Grove, said residents have missed baths or wet themselves due to inadequate staff.
"The lack of oversight of the Division of Veterans Homes in general has caused a decline of the quality of life of the residents and the quality of work environment for the staff," Miller said.
"I'm confident when I say our state veterans homes provide good quality care," Lynch said Thursday. "Our members are happy in their homes. Our staff truly care for their veterans, and we will continue to work towards quality improvements."
Union Grove currently has 73 residents and a staff of 140, according to Lynch. Veterans homes at Union Grove and King in Waupaca County are authorized to have around 1,100 full-time staff, but more than half or 575 positions were unfilled as of December.
She listed efforts to address staffing at the three homes — including one in Chippewa Falls that's run by a contractor and not the state — that include recruitment of certified nursing assistants, staff sign-on bonuses, COVID hazard pay and increasing base wages for nurses.
Veterans Affairs Assistant Deputy Secretary Joey Hoey told lawmakers that Lynch and staff at the homes have navigated incredibly difficult circumstances over the last few years.
"Are there problems? Yes," Hoey said. "But they were doing a great job."
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Evers’ budget would provide $10 million to fully fund operations at the homes and $6.7 million in funding for the agency to support add-on compensation for staff. Hoey said Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary-designee James Bond, who was unable to attend the hearing due to scheduling conflicts, has authorized a survey of residents, families and staff at veterans homes. He said that’s intended to "create effective strategies for improvement."
Despite those goals, former employees like Doug Wamback alleged indifference and incompetence among state leadership. He served as an interim commandant at Union Grove and executive director of Ainsworth Hall at King. Wamback noted there have been five different heads of Union Grove since 2019, and he claimed Lynch delayed action and failed to properly draw up correction plans when violations were cited.
"They had done nothing to start correcting the problems that had been identified," Wamback said.
Lynch said four individuals left during her tenure, telling lawmakers it’s not uncommon for staff from the private sector to find civil service difficult. Regarding correction plans, she said they’re required to write them immediately, and plans have been accepted and implemented. She acknowledged repeat citations, but said that doesn’t mean plans were inappropriate.
"Human beings sometimes make mistakes," Lynch said.
State Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, accused some legislators on the committee of making issues at the homes look like a "political problem." He noted the Cap Times reported problems with the veterans home at King under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration.
"These issues go back at least six years," Carpenter said. "We do need to correct them."
State Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said problems possibly started under Walker’s administration, claiming only half a dozen violations occurred.
A state audit in 2017 found the Department of Health Services issued 184 citations to King from 2012 to 2016 while the federal VA issued 20 citations from 2012 to 2017. The audit noted King generally received fewer citations than other comparable nursing facilities in the region, and only one citation issued by state health officials was for substandard quality of care that includes the most severe violations.
State Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Kenosha, noted the Legislative Audit Bureau hasn’t been called in to investigate.
"I'm a veteran, I want to take care of these people," Wirch said. "The Audit Bureau should be in there to solve the problems."
Nass said he would be surprised if the Legislature’s audit committee doesn’t recommend one.
"If we don’t, then shame on us," Nass said.
If ordered, lawmakers noted an audit could take months. State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, and others said veterans need help now through the budget or legislation.
"We need to get this done and get a problem solved," Wanggaard said.