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Gov. Scott Walker's vetoes undo bipartisan reforms to King veterans home finances

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The view from the Marden Memorial Center at the King veterans home on July 24. 

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

Democratic and Republican lawmakers say more accountability is needed to monitor finances at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King after Gov. Scott Walker vetoed a series bipartisan reforms in the state’s two-year budget.

State Senate and Assembly lawmakers from both parties unanimously approved several measures during Joint Finance Committee meetings in May aimed at increasing oversight of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates the King veterans nursing home and two others in the state.

“He doesn’t want to give up any power,” said Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, who represents the district in which King sits. “DVA is an administrative agency and he believes he’s in charge of it and doesn’t want us to have any say in it.”

The agency has been under fire from some lawmakers after a series of audits from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau detailed how WDVA transferred millions of dollars away from the King home over a 10-year period. In addition, audits found ongoing and longstanding struggles with nurse aide recruitment and retention in the midst of a nationwide shortage. A Cap Times investigation last year outlined how staff shortages affected the quality of care at the home and highlighted concerns from residents, staff and families there.

WDVA said that it provides “the highest level of personal care” and points to consistently high rankings on the federal five-star rating system as proof.

“Member care at King far exceeds the norm,” said Carla Vigue, WDVA’s spokeswoman. “King staff are truly providing a great service to our most vulnerable veteran population.”

The Legislature’s measures would have required WDVA to get approval from the Joint Finance Committee before making money transfers out of King and into the Veterans Trust Fund, a revolving internal agency fund that pays for other veterans programs and agency salaries.

The Trust Fund has struggled for years and has been on the verge of insolvency without routine injections of cash from the state’s veterans nursing homes. Finding a sustainable source of money for the trust fund was a 2010 Walker gubernatorial campaign promise.

Tom Evenson, a spokesman for Walker, said he has kept that promise by using the homes as a source of revenue. He has also put general tax revenue into the fund, the largest amount since 1972, Evenson said.

“The previous secretary spearheaded a task force on trust fund solvency that recommended transfers from the homes, among other options,” he said. “The Veterans Trust Fund is solvent through the biennium and will remain solvent in the future.”

The Legislature at one time had to approve any transfers into the Veterans Trust Fund from the homes, but Walker lifted that requirement several years ago.

The veterans agency already provides estimates of money transfers in the state budget and reports what it transferred to the Legislature every two years, but Walker’s veto allows the agency to move money unilaterally in real time.

Evenson said requiring DVA to get legislative permission to transfer money is duplicative and that WDVA is already working to comply with the Legislature's audit recommendations.

“The expected 2017-19 transfers are already approved by the Legislature when they approved the budget, so an additional review is redundant and would only serve to create uncertainty and delay in the funding of other veterans benefits,” Evenson said. “Remember, all funding transferred is used to fund other veterans programs. This is veterans helping veterans.”

The Legislature’s budget measures would have also required WDVA to submit several reports as recommended by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau. WDVA has not completed reports as recommended by the LAB in the past, according to LAB's most recent audit.

The audit bureau can recommend that agencies submit reports but has no power to ultimately enforce them. There are no consequences if an agency fails to implement audit requirements, as WDVA has done with past audits. The budget provisions Walker vetoed would have required the agency to comply.

Evenson said WDVA is working to comply with the audit bureau’s recommendations.

Lawmakers on the joint audit committee are set to meet Tuesday to discuss the vetoes and follow-up on the King audits released earlier this year. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, a co-chairman of the committee, said he is unhappy with Walker’s WDVA vetoes, but said the committee will keep working on issues identified in the audit.

“We’re elected just like he is, and our fiscal body should have some oversight over these things,” he said. “I’m not giving up on those issues and I would expect that the committee will ask for additional oversight. It’s rare that an agency defies us and doesn’t do it. I believe there are several concerns remaining that are left over from the King audit.”

Some of them, he said, are staff turnover and the Department of Health Services' refusal to give the audit bureau access to its records, Cowles said.

“It will be a stimulating meeting (this) week,” he said. 

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, sits on the Joint Finance Committee and is proposing a series of four bills that would bring more accountability to WDVA. The “King Veterans Home Accountability Package” specifies that the financial needs of Wisconsin veterans homes receive first consideration for the use of veterans home revenue before it is transferred to other WDVA funds and programs, and creates a hotline for veterans home employees, residents and their families to report abuse and neglect at veterans homes.

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The package would also provides $2 million annually for wage increases for veterans home employees in positions with high vacancy rates.

“I was surprised and shocked that the governor vetoed something that passed with 100 percent bipartisan support,” Shankland said.

Shankland said she hears from King residents and their families often about their concerns, many of whom say they are afraid to file an official complaint for fear of retribution from the administration.

“That really puts us back at square one when it comes to questions regarding the insolvency of the Veterans Trust Fund and the core problems at King,” Shankland said.

No Republicans have signed on to Shankland’s proposal yet. If such a bill were introduced in the Senate, Olsen said he doesn’t think it would do much good.

“The thing about it is we can pass a bill, but he can veto a bill, so what’s the point of that?” he said. “If he was a Democrat, he’d do the same thing because governors don’t like to give up power.”

Vigue acknowledged that there are personnel-related challenges at King but said retention averages exceed that of the state and nation.

“We have been actively seeking solutions to this situation. There are numerous things we have done recently such as protecting new hires from mandatory overtime, increasing the number of weekends off for certified nursing assistants, hiring a nurse recruiter, and protecting days surrounding vacation from extra hours worked, to name a few,” she said in an email.

Here are the reports that lawmakers tried to require of WDVA as recommended by the Legislative Audit Bureau:

  • description and analysis of the department's administrative costs supported by the Veterans Trust Fund and by revenue generated from the state veterans homes
  • proposals for changes to the department's administrative structure or position levels and salaries to increase efficiency or administrative costs
  • two proposed long-term plans to maintain the solvency of the Veterans Trust Fund, one of which includes transfers from the appropriations of the state veterans homes and one of which that does not include such transfers
  • establish a formula for calculating private pay rates for nursing home and assisted living care at the state veterans homes
  • submit a report to the Joint Committee on Finance and the Joint Legislative Audit Committee by July 1, 2018, relating to the cash balance in the state veterans home account and providing a plan for the management and proposed use of the cash balance in the account
  • submit a report to the Joint Committee on Finance and the Joint Legislative Audit Committee by July 1, 2018, that includes a description of the department's efforts to establish a process for identifying and assessing the capital-related project needs for all Wisconsin Veterans Homes; and a description of the department's efforts to use this information to complete a 10-year facilities plan for the state veterans homes.

 

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.