Friday, December 2nd, 2022
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MADISON — Wisconsin lawmakers are expressing frustration and condemnation of the Evers administration following a report showing the state Veterans Home at Union Grove is one of the most troubled veterans nursing facilities in the nation.

The home most recently has been cited by regulators for failing to investigate reports of patient abuse, not giving residents regular showers, infection control and unsanitary conditions, according to a report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“The treatment of our heroes at the Veterans Home at Union Grove is completely unacceptable. Actually, ‘completely unacceptable’ doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of how disgusted we are with what is occurring,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) in a joint statement. “These veterans have earned far better than the treatment they’ve been getting.”

According to the Journal Sentinel report, in one case Navy veteran Randy Krall was so dehydrated when he was rushed to a hospital that doctors had a difficult time getting a urine sample to diagnose him. His medical chart showed he hadn’t had water for much of the day. When Krall’s condition deteriorated a few weeks later at the veterans nursing home, no one called to alert the family — contrary to facility policy. A Veterans Home nurse contacted Krall’s wife only after he died.

In one of two abuse-related violations, a nursing aide earlier this year flipped over a resident to clean his genital area, according to the newspaper. The aide ignored instructions on how to carefully handle the patient or ask for help from a second aide.

The veterans home over the past five years has been cited for 62 violations and received fines totalling $250,000.

Mary Kolar, Evers’ secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, has presided over much of the deterioration at the facility her agency oversees. She blamed a lack of staff and frequent leadership changes for the myriad problems at the veterans home, according to the newspaper.

Vos and Wanggaard said they understand the Union Grove staff is overworked, but it’s not a money issue. It’s a “product of consistent mismanagement at Union Grove.”

“The management and care at the home have fallen off a cliff since 2019. Each new manager seems to make the problem worse, not better,” said the lawmakers, whose districts include the village of Union Grove.

Staffing problems at the home were an issue before the pandemic. The Republican-controlled Legislature approved the governor’s budget requests related to staffing Wisconsin’s Veterans Homes, including at Union Grove. The Legislature also broadened Evers’ authority to spend an additional $10 million for emergency operations and staffing at the homes.

Vos and Wanggaard said the facility was offered federal aid, but the Evers administration rejected the assistance.

“They are short staffed to this day, and Governor Evers kicked the Wisconsin National Guard out of the home six weeks early, saying they weren’t needed,” the lawmakers said, referring to the deployment of Guard members to help fill staffing shortages. “It’s inexcusable, and a slap in the face to everyone that cares about the veterans in Union Grove.”

“Union Grove is a challenge,” Kolar told the Journal Sentinel. “We are still changing the culture. There needs to be a greater focus, as evidenced by the citations, on the requirements of a skilled nursing facility.”

Perhaps the cultural problems begin at the top.

As the newspaper’s report detailed, a resident at the meeting in March told Kolar he sometimes feels like a prisoner of war at the veterans home.

“No one is making you stay there,” Kolar told the resident. “Please don’t call it a POW camp. You have choices.”

U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Janesville) said Kolar’s response to the veteran is offensive.

“The very purpose of our Veterans Administration is to properly serve veterans. Our veterans and their families should be able to receive high-quality care at any facility in our state,” the congressman said in a statement.

Two years ago, Steil called for additional resources to be provided to Union Grove. The Evers administration rejected the help, just as it initially did when the Trump administration offered federal law enforcement support to stop the riots in Kenosha that same year.

As Empower Wisconsin reported, a little more than two months after Evers declined federal support, a COVID-19 outbreak struck the Veterans Home at Union Grove and killed nine residents.

“The response notes that federal officials offered consultation and staffing assistance to the state veterans home in May. That offer was declined until August, after the outbreak occurred,” Steil said in November 2020.

Steil sought a federal investigation into the outbreak in which 28 of 153 veterans in the locked memory care unit tested positive for the coronavirus. Of the nine veterans who died, four were in hospice care prior to the infection.

“For the Evers Administration to now cite staffing shortages as cause of these issues, after his Administration initially refused Federal staffing assistance, is beyond frustrating,” the congressman said Thursday.

The Veterans Home scandal is just the latest sad example of a governor and an administration whose tenure in office have been marked by incompetence and dysfunction. From the failures of the Department of Workforce Development to pay Wisconsin’s unemployed to the massive backlog of professional license applications at the Department of Public Safety and Professional Services, it has been one disaster after another.

And now, as Memorial Day approaches, Wisconsin veterans are suffering abuse and neglect at a very troubled state-run nursing home.

“It’s obvious that something needs to change. You can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over and getting the same result. Something needs to change and needs to change now,” Vos and Wanggaard said.

“Our veterans deserve better, our veterans have earned better. And we all expect better.”

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