Did Walker Raid Veteran’s Home Fund?
Cap Times story on nursing home shows funding was diverted while care declined.
Frank T. Crivello, 70, is a former Milwaukee County judge and prosecutor and an Army veteran, who three years ago came to the Wisconsin Veterans Home in King, in Waupaca County, after he had a stroke. The home, named for 19th century General Charles King, is described by the Wisconsin Department of Veterans’ Affairs (WDVA) as “a gem like no other,” with the “most picturesque scenery” and “exquisitely nestled between the bluest of blue spring-fed lakes.”
But the experience hasn’t been so lovely for Crivello, as a recent story in the Cap Times has reported. The retired judge told the publication he has had accidents because he cannot move on his own and has trouble getting help from aides. “He has been asking for a new wheelchair for months, to no avail. He slumps in the one he has now. It is hard for him to push and hurts his hands, he said.”
One reason Crivello may not have gotten the wheelchair is because state officials are steadily funneling money away from the nursing home, even as the quality of care there declines. The practice went on under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, but has gotten worse under Republican Gov. Scott Walker. “State officials have used King’s money to subsidize its other veterans homes and have transferred more than $20 million in total since 2007 back to Madison to pay for other departmental expenses and salaries,” writes Cap Times reporter Katelyn Ferral. The WDVA “plans to transfer another $18.6 million from King over the next two fiscal years, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. This year, WDVA transferred $12 million out of the fund for the homes.”
Ferral’s story is quite a piece of reporting: long, in-depth, well-researched and disturbing. She visited the King veterans home several times and interviewed 25 current and former employees, residents and family members, all of whom said King’s staffing shortages and the state’s cost cutting there have hurt the most vulnerable veterans. “Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, a practice they said is entrenched at King and the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs in Madison.”
A report by the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau described what’s happening this way: “The use of the state veterans homes’ PR appropriation balances to maintain solvency of the VTF involves diverting funds that could otherwise be used for providing care at the homes, as well as using those funds for a purpose that is different from which they were collected.”
In response to Ferral’s questions, WDVA and Walker administration officials denied the allegations of neglect and cost-cutting. They pointed to the four- and five-star rankings for King from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which is above average compared to other nursing homes in Wisconsin. But “employees counter that much of the information used to determine those strong ratings is self-reported, not checked by the federal or state government,” Ferral writes.
She describes a home where “Carpeting in one late-stage dementia unit is yet to be replaced after being soaked with urine… Medical equipment, including the nurse paging system, is outdated and some functions minimally… Beds are antiquated, some welded together… (Federal) inspectors found King did not have a control program for certain infections, a lapse that had the potential to affect 195 residents. The same report also found that residents were washed with dirty washcloths placed in the drain of a soiled sink…”
“More than a dozen people interviewed” said it was a common practice for residents to be “‘snowed,’ heavily drugged with painkillers and left in a zombie-like state.” (WDVA officials denied this.)
Signs posted at King warn residents “of elevated levels of lead in the water, telling them to let it run before using. State water quality reports show that the water is safe, but meanwhile, volunteers said more residents are buying bottled water at the grocery store to avoid drinking out of the tap,” Ferral reports.
Residents do not have tubs or showers in their rooms and are scheduled to bathe once a week, one volunteer at the home told Ferrall. “That’s awful,” said the volunteer. “Once a week? Come on.”
“A shortage of direct care staff and frequent turnover has plagued the facility for nearly a decade, resulting in inconsistent, haphazard care,” critics told Farrall. “Current and former staff said the state has done little to invest in its employees or aggressively recruit or retain them.”
The story notes there were 100 job vacancies at the home, according to what Jim Knight, King’s commandant and the home’s top official, told the Board of Veterans Affairs, a WDVA advisory board, at its July meeting. “That’s not totally uncommon for us,” he told the board. But WDVA officials told the Cap Times they have been proactive in recruiting and retaining nursing staff.
Several former King employees said “the state keeps the homes as full as possible, alleging exceedingly sick veterans are accepted regardless of its capacity to care for them,” Ferral writes. “More heads in King’s 721 beds means more money flows to the state from Medicaid, Medicare and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs,” which provides funding for the home. And then the state grabs millions of dollars of that funding for other purposes.
State officials conceded to Ferrall that the home was a money maker. “Yes, King is making money but yes, we are reinvesting back into King,” said Jim Parker, administrator of the division of enterprise services in WDVA.
“We have approved numerous upgrades and additional staff positions for the veterans home,” said Walker spokesman Tom Evenson. “Governor Walker has a deep respect for our veterans and a sense of duty to provide the care and services they deserve and have rightfully earned.”
“Over the last four years, state Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, said her office has received dozens of complaints about King, with many callers asking to be anonymous for fear of retribution,” Ferral reports. Lassa’s district borders the Republican-controlled district where King is located.
Lassa also asked for a state audit of the home, but in a one-party government like Wisconsin’s, Democrats have no power to force an audit. Requests must go through Rep. Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem), who leads the Legislative Audit Committee with Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay). “Neither Kerkman nor Cowles responded to questions about why their committee has decided against auditing King,” Ferral writes.
“The facts clearly show that Governor Walker, WDVA Secretary John Scocos, and Republicans in the Legislature used the veterans’ homes as a cash cow while they let our veterans suffer with substandard care,” Lassa contends. “I call on the federal government to investigate the situation at King. At this point, we simply can’t trust the administration to investigate its own mismanagement at the state veterans’ homes. Secondly, the raiding of funds from the veterans’ homes should halt immediately and the funds be used to improve veterans care. In the meantime, I warn WDVA that any retribution against veterans or employees at King who spoke out against the abuses there will only delay the reforms needed to make sure our veterans finally receive the care they deserve.”
Walker spokesman Evenson told the Cap Times that Lassa’s allegations are unfounded. “This characterization is pure politics, and frankly, it’s not true,” he said. “Our administration has been incredibly responsive, and we have responded to questions posed by Senator Lassa on several occasions.”
But one Republican came forward with concerns about the situation. Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, whose district includes King, released a statement saying “I believe this audit request should be approved by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, and these concerns should be investigated by the non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau.”
Whether it was that or the press releases by several Democratic lawmakers raising concerns about the nursing home, the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Audit Committee said yesterday they support approving an audit of the King nursing home, as WISC-TV in Madison reported. Evenson, meanwhile, said “the claims will be investigated as part of a review by the state Department of Health Services’ Division of Quality Assurance,” the station noted.
That amounts to an “in-house” investigation by the Walker administration and falls far short of what an outside probe by the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau might entail. It remains to be seen if Kerman and Cowles follow through and request such an investigation. Meanwhile, state Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay), has called for an investigation by the Federal Department of Veterans Affairs, echoing a demand made by state Sen. Janis Ringhand. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this issue.