MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin lawmakers on Wednesday ordered auditors to perform a sweeping review of conditions at the state’s largest veteran nursing home, after a newspaper story alleged it was providing substandard care.
The Republican-controlled Joint Legislative Audit Committee voted unanimously to authorize a probe at the Wisconsin Veterans Home in King that will examine staffing levels and training, revenue and spending trends, compliance with state and federal regulations, how the state monitors the facility, and maintenance needs.
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary John Scocos told the committee during a hearing before the vote that agency investigators haven’t been able to substantiate any of the allegations of substandard care. But he said he’d welcome an audit because it will show the home is performing well.
“Whatever you want,” he told the committee. “It’s sad to see some of the things in the media, the allegations. But we’re driving on. If there are things to tune up, we’ll tune them up, but we’re pretty solid on our care for veterans.”
Around 700 residents receive care at King, which provides them with nursing, counseling and social activities. The Capital Times ran a story in August raising questions about substandard care, medical errors, deteriorating buildings and prolonged staffing shortages. Sen. Luther Olson, a Ripon Republican whose district includes the home, asked the audit committee to order a review after receiving complaints from residents and staff who he said were too afraid of retribution to come forward before the newspaper published its story.
“Frankly, I am appalled that there is an environment at King where people fear retribution for simply being concerned about the well-being of a member under their care or their loved one,” Olsen told the committee.
Scocos told the committee that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found the King facilities were in full compliance with all its standards during surveys in June and last year, he said, adding that Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2014 authorized construction of a new $80 million facility at King to replace some aging buildings.
Walker appointed Scocos as DVA secretary.
Democrats on the committee challenged state Auditor Joe Chrisman to reconcile the accolades with the complaints. They also demanded he find out who made the decision to transfer $18.5 million from a surplus that the state’s veteran homes have accumulated to other veterans programs when that money could have gone for upgrades at King. Timothy Michael, a former U.S. Marine from Oshkosh who runs an annual motorcycle ride to raise money for the King facility, asked the committee during the pre-vote hearing why he was bothering if the homes have a surplus.
“We have some red flags in terms of judgment calls … of how money is spent,” Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, said.
Scocos said the transfers went to support other veterans programs. Chrisman, the auditor, promised the committee he would conduct a comprehensive review of the King’s home funding.
Several people who spoke during the hearing suggested complaints about King may be exaggerated, given the emotional distress that goes living in a nursing home. Tim Thiers, a Navy veteran who worked as a veterans service officer for Manitowoc County, said he has visited King multiple times for his job and to deliver donations and he never saw anything untoward there.
“These are the same type of people who complain if you give them a $50 bill, why you didn’t give them $100?” he said.
Committee Republicans said the audit would at least provide an objective picture of the home.
“We don’t need a lot of pressure that doesn’t need to happen if we are indeed doing the best we can,” Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said.
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