GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. - Democratic lawmakers, a Vietnam veteran and multiple advocates for veterans blasted Gov. Rick Snyder's administration Thursday, July 27, for "harming veterans" by privatizing the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans in 2011.
The privatization issue is bubbling to the surface again after 11 nurse aides were charged with falsifying medical records -- the nursing assistants signed off they had checked on veterans.
Attorney General Bill Schuette, who filed the criminal charges against the workers, says it can be proven using surveillance video that the aides didn't do the work.
Gov. Snyder's administration decided to layoff close to 150 state workers in 2011 in favor of bringing in a contractor to staff the facility. Just about everybody agrees the beginning stages of the privatization of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans was a disaster.
The contractor chosen to hire nursing assistants, J2s, suffered from internal strife and a severe lack of staffing that some say contributed to "abuse and neglect" situations. All of the workers charged by Schuette are former employees of J2s.
"Those charges do not go far enough to address the years of systemic disregard for our veterans well-being at this home," Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) said.
"(Privatization) resulted in unspeakable suffering to veterans who served our country bravely and honorably," Rep. Tim Greimel (D–Auburn Hills) said in a news conference.
The failings of J2s were highlighted in a Michigan Office of Auditor General report in February 2016 that indicated how caregivers were signing off on welfare checks that weren't done. The audit also found that the facility was not properly administering pharmaceuticals, causing potential quality of care issues. Perhaps most concerning was the finding that the Home for Veterans did not track or properly investigate or respond to allegations of abuse and neglect in the facility.
In a sit down interview with the 13 Watchdog team last year, Gov. Snyder acknowledged J2s was not doing the job, but suggested that future changes, which included bringing two new contractors into the facility, would help remedy the poor treatment.
There are conflicting views whether the new contractors are treating veterans better at the moment.
Current resident of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans Tony Spallone told us caregivers currently are not well-trained and often come to work poorly-dressed, leading to a lower standard of care.
He specifically addressed Gov. Snyder in his speech. "I hope you do something about this because privatizing doesn't work here," Spallone said.
The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency (MVAA) currently administrates the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans and is in the midst of building a new Home for Veterans facility in Grand Rapids along with a new one to be built in Detroit at a cost of $108 million. The project is currently in the design phase and does not yet have federal approval. Sources indicate it could be 2020 and beyond before the facility is functioning.
Earlier in the week, MVAA's Director James Redford issued a statement saying veterans are being cared for properly.
“Since February 2016, everyone at MVAA and the Michigan Veterans Health System has been working very hard to address all findings of the audit, and substantial progress has been made,” Redford said.
Redford indicated the home has increased staffing, instituted both member location checks and random checks of reports by each assistant director of nursing.
“The safety and well-being of all those we have the privilege of serving is of paramount concern to MVAA staff, and we are taking all possible measures to make certain we are fulfilling these responsibilities,” Redford said. “We have put additional education and policies in place intended to correct previously identified deficiencies and to ensure we are providing the best care possible.”
Redford and others at the MVAA, though, didn't respond to multiple requests from the 13 Watchdog team to answer questions so we could fully understand the situation.
We also wanted to get Gov. Snyder's reaction to Spallone's comments, but nobody from his office responded to requests for comment by our deadline.
Spallone filed a lawsuit against the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans in 2011 that was later dropped. He said he would love to reinstitute it in light of all the problems.
"I've got to think about it because I have high blood pressure," Spallone said. "I don't know if i can go through this (expletive) again but I will for the guys. I would do it for the guys."
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