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Wednesday, August 10th, 2022
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Reports of veterans neglected and abused have surfaced at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at Union Grove, a skilled nursing facility just southwest of Milwaukee. The Union Grove Veterans Home is run by the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs (WDVA) and, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has around 90 veterans within its care. This is one of three homes the WDVA operates in the state, along with King Veterans Home in Waupaca and the Wisconsin Veterans Home in Chippewa Falls. The latest concerning news report is not the first time the WDVA has come under pressure for failing to provide veterans with adequate care. King had complaints in the past and there is scrutiny across the political spectrum on how to best manage these homes.

What makes Union Grove’s case egregious is its poor performance compared to other skilled nursing facilities across the nation. With more than twice the number of violations of the state average, Union Grove is plagued with scandals and a high turnover rate. Incidents such as over-medicating patients, leaving veterans to soil themselves, failing to provide water, and alleged physical abuse of veterans by employees are wounding Wisconsin’s reputation.

WDVA Secretary Mary Kolar refused to comment on the Journal Sentinel story and has pushed off criticism of her department. While Wisconsin’s veterans homes are administered by the WDVA, they receive a subsidy from the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs to care for veterans in Wisconsin. This pays for a large portion of staffing and maintenance within the veterans homes. Considering the poor performance of Union Grove as well as the past incidents at King, we need to reevaluate how Wisconsin takes care of its veterans living in skilled nursing facilities.

A promise made should be a promise kept.

Providing essential care for those who sacrificed for their country is part of our nation’s fabric and there is a duty to assist veterans who, as they age, struggle and cope with the scars of war. This is expected to continue when veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq age and deal with chronic physical and mental injuries. In some cases, our younger veterans are already facing challenging issues to their physical and mental health.

Finding solutions to provide the best care, regardless of who administers it, must be the primary objective. The WDVA has struggled to maintain its workforce, and turnover rates are high. Part of the problems are caused by the bureaucratic hurdles and hoops a state agency must jump over and through to hire employees. Current employees at Wisconsin Veteran homes are working mandatory overtime which often creates a hostile work environment. In order to fill the gaps, managers lower standards on hiring part-time employees which gets reflected in the poor performance cited by the Journal Sentinel.

This is what failing our veterans looks like.

We owe it to these heroes to review any and all options no matter how outside the box the solutions may seem. For example, is continuing to run veterans-related funding through only state-run facilities something we should continue?

In southeastern Wisconsin, most private skilled nursing facilities have the resources, expertise, and reputation to fit a veteran’s needs and could be a good alternative to supplement or even outsource some of these care needs.  When compared to what services the WDVA currently provides within Union Grove and King, food, care, and entertainment are superior at private facilities. Partnerships with private skilled nursing facilities can accommodate needs veterans have specifically, whether it be mental health or comradery with fellow veterans. Right now, we know Union Grove is failing to meet that standard.

However, the political reality is that closing one of these homes might not be feasible. King is about to complete a $80 million dollar building to accommodate new veterans, and the idea of closing King is usually met with stiff resistance. While King’s location creates staffing problems (Oshkosh is 45 minutes away), its tradition as a lakeside retirement community for veterans maintains strong emotional bonds for veterans within the state. Union Grove however, isn’t situated on a lake — and it’s located in the Milwaukee metropolitan area. Considering the staffing challenges despite its location, we should consider a new way of caring for veterans in the Milwaukee area. The WDVA should reach out to private skilled nursing facilities in the area to see if there are possible solutions for the veterans currently in Union Grove.

Unfortunately, politicians in Wisconsin have prioritized “do something” legislation over proper care for our state’s veterans. This often means increasing the role of the government in the care of veterans. Recent cases of abuse and neglect reflect a lack of diligence by Gov. Tony Evers and WDVA Sec. Mary Kolar.

Instead of cozying up to big government interests, our leaders must focus on the problems right under their nose. Working with private providers in the Milwaukee area would be a start. The veterans of this state deserve far better than to be left in the dark.

Jason Church is a community outreach fellow with the Institute for Reforming Government and lives in Milwaukee. He is a an Army veteran who lost both of his legs while deployed in Afghanistan, and since his return has advocated for veterans issues.

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