By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Nearly a half year has passed since Gov. Tony Evers ended the Wisconsin National Guard’s mission assisting overworked staff at the state-run Veterans Home at Union Grove. Things have only gotten worse for the dwindling numbers of veterans still at the troubled facility.
Two lawmakers whose districts include Union Grove are demanding answers from a governor whose silence and inaction have put veterans lives at risk.
“It has been nearly six months since you, and you, alone, rescinded the Wisconsin National Guard (WNG) mission at the Veterans Home at Union Grove (Union Grove). At the time, we expressed our concern that our veterans would suffer, because of your decision, as WNG was performing vital, if temporary, staffing duties at Union Grove,” wrote Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) in a letter this week to Evers.
The lawmakers note their fears have been confirmed.
The veterans home received several federal citations, ranging from not investigating or reporting alleged abuses, failing to follow fall protocols, and an alarming lack of training and drug regimen reviews.
Union Grove’s latest infractions follow myriad violations for failing to investigate reports of patient abuse, not giving residents regular showers, infection control and unsanitary conditions.
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, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. 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.
At that point, the veterans home had been cited for 62 violations and received fines totalling $250,000 over the previous five years. The brunt of those violations and fines have been issued over Evers term.
Conditions have deteriorated on the Evers’ watch.
Mary Kolar, Evers’ secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, has presided over much of the trouble 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. She also reportedly told veterans and their families that if they didn’t like how they were treated they could go somewhere else.
A review last week by the MacIver Institute found Kolar has bungled the staff shortage at the veterans home, with exhausted staff throwing up their hands and leaving under the stress of long hours and incompetent management. MacIver’s review found:
- Evers’ appointees have been unable to develop a plan in response to increasingly urgent alarm bells about staffing and care crises
- Alarming personal stories demonstrate the safety of staff and veterans has been jeopardized by poor management
- DVA relies on agency temp staff – paying $95 an hour for an aide – to fill vacancies, but still forces overtime on their workers
- Veterans have fled the home; the census at Union Grove is half what it was in 2018
- DVA wants to use ARPA funds earmarked for Wisconsin Veterans in state homes to demolish buildings
As Vos and Wanggaard note in their letter, despite having almost half as many residents as in previous years, adjusted staffing levels are even lower than before Guard members were deployed. The direct care registered nurse, and licensed practical nurse vacancy rate skyrocketed from near-capacity to almost 14 percent in just one year, the lawmakers write. And volunteer participation at the home has plummeted.
As MacIver reports, the administration is using federal COVID relief funds to demolish buildings instead of fixing the staffing, training and other internal problems at the home. And it appears the state veterans agency failed to apply for a federal grant this fall to improve recruitment and retention of nurses.
Evers’ office did send out a press release recently announcing that veterans will have more space for burial. The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs will receive nearly $3.3 million in federal funds to expand the Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Union Grove — a hop, skip and a jump away from the Veterans Home.
“Ensuring our veterans have an honorable and dignified resting place is important to commemorating their service and sacrifice,” Evers said. “This grant is an important investment to ensure loved ones and future generations can continue honoring the memories of Wisconsin veterans.”
An honorable and dignified place for elderly veterans to live, however, seems too much to ask of this administration.
Evers’ office did not return a request for comment.
Vos and Wanggaard demand Evers re-deploy the National Guard to the Veterans Home, if he is yet able, and use American Recovery Plan Act funds to pay for Guard members or new staff.
“Our veterans and their families are suffering because of your poor decisions at Union Grove. What is your game plan? This isn’t political, people’s lives are at stake,” the lawmakers write.
Empower Wisconsin | Nov. 2, 2022