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The Department of Veterans Affairs is located at 201 W. Washington Ave.

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

Millions of dollars in state money could be headed to Wisconsin’s veterans homes over the next two fiscal years, if lawmakers approve Gov. Scott Walker’s spending plan for veterans affairs.

In his budget proposal released Wednesday, Walker is asking lawmakers for $50,400 over the next two fiscal years to fund more direct care staff at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King in Waupaca County. He also aims to shift 7.3 full-time equivalent positions at King from administrative roles to direct care staff for residents.

Walker is also requesting $2.6 million over the next two fiscal years for operational improvements and equipment costs at all three of the state’s veterans homes, including funding for resident and security maintenance, electronic health care records and increased Medicare therapy for residents.

"Accountable government also means investing resources where they are needed," Walker said in his budget address at the Capitol Wednesday. "...It is about improving staffing and facilities at our state veterans’ homes."

Walker's funding proposal follows months of reports of staffing shortages and federal citations against the state's veterans homes, including one for dozens of medical errors and a resident's death after staff was found to not have administered life-saving procedures. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also downgraded their ratings at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King and Union Grove last year. 

The shortage of direct care staff for elderly and sick veterans, along with a top-heavy administration at King and the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs has been at the heart of complaints from residents, current and former employees about the quality of care there.

Walker’s budget plan would revert state funding for County Veteran Service Officers back to a block grant model, but require a county employee to verify that the money was spent properly.

The plan would also provide $251,600 over the next two fiscal years for a CVSO liaison position at the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs to "improve administration and outreach services associated with the program," according to his budget summary. 

The state Department of Veterans Affairs had changed the longstanding block grant model to a limited reimbursement system last year after the agency said the money was being mismanaged by some counties.

Each county in the Wisconsin is mandated by state law to directly employ a veterans service officer to be a point of direct contact for local veterans to get connected to services and benefits.  

The funding change last year prompted an outcry from CVSOs statewide who said it would inhibit their ability to provide services. The shift away from a block grant had been a push of former Sec. John Scocos who resigned last year. Last week Walker appointed Dan Zimmerman, a retired military intelligence officer, to succeed Scocos, effective immediately. 

The County Veteran Service Officer Association of Wisconsin passed a resolution in October asking Walker to restore the block grant. 

Joe Aulik, president of Wisconsin's CVSO Association, said the group is pleased with Walker's requests. 

“We would like to thank Governor Walker in taking the time to listen to the CVSO Association of Wisconsin and the needs of Wisconsin veterans. In his 2017-19 Executive Budget Summary he has proposed returning the CVSO Grant back to a block grant format to allow each CVSO Office the flexibility to meet the unique needs within each county and enhance the services we provide to veterans and their dependents at the local level," Aulik said in an email. "We look forward to discussing the new liaison position in more detail with WDVA with the goal of utilizing that position to further enhance the collaboration/communication between the CVSOA-WI, CVSOs, Tribal Veterans Service Officers, and WDVA to better serve our fellow veterans, dependents, and survivors in Wisconsin.”

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Here are the other veterans-related funding proposals in Walker's budget:

-$20,000 in 2017-18 for a study assessing the needs of women veterans in Wisconsin. "There are approximately 38,000 female veterans in Wisconsin and they face obstacles related to job training, homelessness, and obtaining proper mental health assistance," according to Walker's budget summary. 

-$1.2 million for crisis intervention services over the next two fiscal years to create a pilot program for veterans in Kenosha and Racine counties

-$120,000 over two fiscal years for the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars to process benefit claims for veterans

-$160,000 over two fiscal years for increased transportation services provided by Disabled American Veterans Department of Wisconsin 

-$50,000 over two fiscal years for Camp American Legion, which provides camp recreation and relaxation for military families in Wisconsin 

 

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.