Empower Wisconsin | Jan. 4, 2023
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Mary Kolar, Gov. Tony Evers’ embattled Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs secretary, quietly stepped down last week amid deteriorating conditions at state-run veterans homes.
Evers announced Kolar’s retirement in the din of the holiday week, issuing a quiet statement applauding the secretary’s service.
““Mary has been with us since Day One and has always been a fierce advocate for Wisconsin’s more than 300,000 veterans,” the governor said, noting Kolar was one of his first cabinet appointments in 2019. “As a veteran herself, we have valued Mary’s insights and expertise to bolster supports and services to our nation’s heroes and their families, especially in her work as co-chair of our Blue Ribbon Commission on Veteran Opportunity.”
But Kolar has come under increased criticism following allegations of abuse and poor treatment of residents at Wisconsin’s state-run nursing homes for veterans.
Two veterans at the home in King died after questionable care. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, 66 year-old Vietnam vet Ricky Engstrom died in February after suffering second- and third-degree burns over a third of his body. Engstrom was living with advanced multiple sclerosis and used an electric wheel chair. An investigation shows he was left alone outside when he caught himself on fire while smoking. He helplessly tried to douse the flames with snow.
Six months later, Army veteran Tom Link died at King while recovering from back surgery, according to the newspaper.
“He was a diabetic, but staff failed to check his blood sugar regularly and monitor his surgical wound, which developed a severe infection. Link was found unresponsive, in a coma. He died four days later, less than a month after coming to King,” the report states.
The state-run veterans home at Union Grove has been a house of horrors for hundreds of residents.
The facility was recently slapped with six new violations in its annual federal inspection. That brings the total number of violations to 76 since 2017, the vast majority of the infractions on the Evers administration’s watch. Violations included a failure to thoroughly investigate an allegation of abuse or report it to state regulators. Investigators found staff didn’t do enough to prevent residents from falling and did not properly train nursing aides.
Veterans also have been given potentially unnecessary medications, including antipsychotics, according to federal records.
As she prepared to retire this week, Kolar thanked Evers for assembling a “phenomenal team.” The former Dane County Supervisor said during her tenure the Department of Veterans Affairs “has strengthened partnerships, grown outreach, improved benefits and services, and laid a better foundation for the future of Wisconsin veterans and their families.”
As conditions have deteriorated over the past couple of years, however, Kolar has blamed the problems on a severe staffing shortage. But the latest federal inspection finds the administration failed to apply for federal finding set aside for veterans homes to assist with staffing.
Documents obtained by the MacIver Institute detailed more incidents of mismanagement at the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs under Evers. Alarmingly, Union Grove and the other state-run veterans homes are bleeding money and could be insolvent within five years — in spite of millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid.
Fed up families are moving their loved ones out of Union Grove. According to MacIver, the census at the veterans homes at King and Union Grove are about half their capacity and well below the level required to sustain operations. Yet ,even with contract staff, forced overtime is still required.
Residents, their families and employees complain of overworked staff, in some cases so exhausted they have passed out at work or behind the wheel of their vehicles on the way to reporting for duty.
The maltreatment at Union Grove has proved deadly.
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, according to the Journal Sentinel. 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 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.
“You would think people who have taken time, their resources and so much of themselves to serve would be treated better,” outgoing state Sen. Dale Kooyenga, a member of the Senate’s Veterans Committee, told Empower Wisconsin. Kooyenga has called for a state audit of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Kolar won’t be there should the Legislature move on such a review.
Kolar told the Journal Sentinel last year that Union Grove remains a “challenge” and that “we are still changing the culture.”
Critics have said the cultural problems begin at the top.
As the Journal Sentinel reported, a resident at a meeting last 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), who has sought answers from the Evers administration about ill-treatment of veterans, said Kolar’s response to the veteran was 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.