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Steil seeks answers on COVID deaths at state Veterans Home

Empower Wisconsin | Nov. 24, 2020

MADISON — State Veterans care officials declined U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs assistance in late May, more than two months before a COVID-19 outbreak struck the Wisconsin State Veterans Home at Union Grove and killed nine residents, according to a letter from VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil.

“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 Monday in a press release.

In August, the Janesville Republican asked Wilkie to conduct an 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. Nineteen veterans recovered, as have 26 of 28 staff members who tested positive.

The Department of Veterans Affairs response states, “(a)t the direction of Milwaukee’s VAMC (Veterans Affairs Medical Center) director, the State Veterans Home VA Medical Facility Representative offered the Wisconsin State Veterans Home at Union Grove consultation and staffing support on May 27, 2020. At that time, SVH leadership declined this assistance until the outbreak in August 2020.”

Steil reached out to the state of Wisconsin’s Veterans Home Director and Gov. Tony Evers’ Secretary of Veterans Affairs Mary Kolar for clarification. In his letter, the congressman wrote that the offer of assistance from the VA would have been without cost to the state.

“Can you please provide an explanation for why this assistance was initially declined?” Steil wrote. “Can you also detail the extent of federal assistance WI DVA (Department of Veterans Affairs) has received since the initial outbreak occurred?”

Steil also is seeking details about any other offers of federal assistance that the agency has declined during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Evers’ handling of the federal CARES Act funding Wisconsin received has caught the attention the congressman. The Janesville Republican in July asked the governor to clarify why, according to a U.S. Treasury Department report, had just 3.8 percent of the $2 billion been spent. Evers at the time responded that much of the money was marked to be spent for programs and that he didn’t want to spend through the money before knowing if there would be another round of federal funding. But he was slow to spell out where the money was targeted.

Among the delayed expenditures, $445 million pledged to “ensure Wisconsin hospital systems and communities are prepared to handle surge.” It wasn’t until October, more than four months after after Evers first announced it, that the money began being distributed to the health care providers.

“We need to learn from these outbreaks so that we can prevent further cases. Our veterans deserve the highest quality care and frontline staff at the facility need support,” Steil said in the press release.

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