State lawmakers have unanimously approved an audit of the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King.
Republicans and Democrats from both chambers of the state Legislature voted Wednesday to direct the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau to conduct a six-to-nine month audit focusing on the level of oversight, spending practices, quality of care, staffing shortages and turnover at the home.
The vote comes three weeks after a Cap Times story outlined concerns from former and current employees, volunteers and residents at King that care there has faltered as the home brings in millions of dollars in excess revenue, with some of that money transferred to other veterans programs.
The 721-bed nursing home at King is the largest in the state. It, along with two other veterans homes, is run by the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs. At the Wednesday meeting, WDVA Secretary John Scocos said his agency would fully cooperate with the review, allowing auditors to access whatever records or facilities necessary.
"You can have whatever you want, let's do the audit today," he said. Scocos said concerns about care at King have been unsubstantiated by inspections conducted by federal regulators, who have routinely given the facility high marks for care.
"These entities have said that our homes are among the best in the country. ... If issues arise during these inspections, corrective action plans are put into place urgently so that we may make the improvements," he said.
Accordingly, the agency said it implemented an improvement plan when federal regulators cited the facility with the most serious citation it can give, after determining that staff did not administer CPR to a resident who was not breathing and died. The incident happened earlier this year.
Scocos said a review by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services has found no problems and said a legislative audit would underscore the agency's achievements in making its veterans nursing homes financially prosperous after years of deficits.
“DHS investigators are out there, none of the concerns have been substantiated as of yesterday," he said. "We are still the very best in the country ... we are pretty solid on what we believe is the care for our veterans.”
Before leaving the meeting, Scocos noted that the food at King is high quality and said media representations of the food there was inaccurate. He invited lawmakers to come to the King home for a meal and to drink the water, which at times comes out yellow from the faucet, according to residents and photos from the home.
State Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, who called for the audit, noted that the audit is not about partisan politics and said that over the last month he has heard from "far too many" staff members and residents about problems at King. He said many people who call him are afraid to express their concerns because of retribution.
He also said he has heard good things about the care at King and said that politics is not driving his request for an audit or scrutiny of that home.
"I do not believe there should be opposing sides to this story. If we can do better, we should do better. Period," he said.
Lawmakers also emphasized that the intent of the audit was not to shut down King, but rather to get answers to questions there.
"We are not going to be closing any of the veterans nursing homes," said state Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem. "We want to make sure the quality of care is there and is meeting the needs of our veterans.”
Representatives from veterans service organizations said they support the audit, but also spoke in support of people who work at King.
Al Labelle, who works with the Disabled American Veterans chapter in Wisconsin, said he is concerned about the money transfers from King since the home is getting federal money specifically for veteran care and is using some of it for other purposes. An audit should evaluate how that federal money is used, he said.
"When federal veterans homes funding is requested by states, these funds are intended to be used for residents' health care and needs," he said. "If reimbursement funds are not used for their intended purpose, it might be viewed by some as breaking a trust."
Tim Thiers, a former employee at the state Department of Veterans Affairs, who said he works with several veterans service organizations, said he has only heard good things from staff and residents at King. He attended a listening session there two weeks ago and said people there were distressed by news reports that were not true.
"They thought it was a bunch of bull," he said.
But others who live near the veterans home and have volunteered there corroborated concerns about staff turnover and retaliation against staff at the home.
"There are a lot of things going on and people are afraid to talk about them," said David Wedde, who lives near King and said he knows several who work there.
He also questioned the quality of the food. He said he does not understand how the home can have a surplus of money, but cut amenities like the popular coffee shop, which was replaced with a vending machine system earlier this year.
"If the food is good, why do they literally charge thousands and thousands of dollars in food from the Piggly Wiggly in Waupaca every month?" he asked.
The audit is set to be complete sometime next year.