GRAND RAPIDS, MICH - Democratic Rep. Winnie Brinks, of Grand Rapids is sure the lawsuit filed by veterans at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans in 2011 predicted the future.
Brinks is outraged that all of the concerns brought to leaders within the state, she says, were largely ignored.
“I continue to be incredibly frustrated and deeply disappointed that the state ignored repeated calls to investigate the horrible situation that unfolded after the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans was privatized," Brinks said. "I, along with many others, called for better care, more accountability, and an investigation early in my first term in the legislature, starting in 2013."
Rep. Brinks said her first act as a lawmaker was to introduce a resolution to promote better care at the Home for Veterans. Several months later Brinks joined fellow lawmakers at the time, Tim Greimel and Brandon Dillon, to visit the facility. They say they found serious concerns with the quality of care in the home.
Four years later Rep. Brinks says she has mixed feelings about Monday's criminal charges.
"I’m glad to see that we finally have some action on this, Rep. Brinks said. "The tragedy here is that the state’s years of inaction caused Michigan veterans to suffer neglect and abuse at the Grand Rapids Home For Veterans, and this investigation lets our veterans down once again by not holding those responsible for ensuring the provision of good care, accountable for what happened on their watch."
The lawsuit was filed by veteran Anthony Spallone intending to stop the on-going privatization at the time. Gov. Rick Snyder recommended taking state-employed care aides out the home and replace them with nurse aides hired by local contractor J2s.
It was a contentious environment at the time as state aides lost their jobs and were replaced by people they considered to be less-skilled, less-experienced and cheaper.
Union leaders did everything they could to stop the job losses including filing Spallone's lawsuit. It alleged the privatization would lead to substandard care and contended J2S had a quote "dangerous track record of care".
Spallone's attorney at the time was adamant veterans could be put in terrible situations with the privatization.
"The only saving grace for these men and women who defended our country is that the state-employed Resident Care Aides are the primary source of nursing assistant care that they receive," said Richard Mack, attorney. "With those state-employed RCAs gone, the hazards to these veterans would increase exponentially.
It's clear, in some cases, Mack's statement turned out to be true.
To answer Spallone's lawsuit in 2011, the state's Attorney General Bill Schuette automatically had to defend the state's interests. He was, essentially, working to ensure the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans was indeed privatized. Interestingly, Schuette made the decision to charge 11 former J2s employees in connection with falsifying records and has been criticized by Democrats for playing both sides of the fence.
In interviews with Schuette over the past year, he said he was just doing his job as the state's top attorney and said politics played no role in deciding to criminally charge the workers.
“We owe our veterans a debt of gratitude for their service to our country," Schuette said. "Allegations that our veterans are being abused or neglected runs counter to the duty we owe them. These allegations were thoroughly investigated by my office."
Eventually, Spallone's lawsuit was dropped but the words in it perhaps haunt everybody considering what's happened over the last five years.
In February 2016, an investigation done by the Michigan Office of the Auditor General confirmed via surveillance video that 43-percent of the member locations checks and 33-percent of the fall alarm checks in their samples did not occur at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, potentially putting members at risk.
The report indicated the Home for Veterans provided documentation as if the checks occurred 100-percent and 96-percent of the time. It was noted in the auditor general's investigation that on 17 out of 25 check sheets sampled by investigators, supervisors certified checks that did not happen.
In February 2017, we reported former J2s caregiver Laurie Botbyl was criminally charged with third degree vulnerable adult abuse for sending a veteran's wheelchair down a hall into a desk. She had an argument with the 81-year old dementia patient and was angry at him. Botbyl is scheduled to be tried on the charge in late August.
Then came Monday's announcement that 11 more J2s employees were each being charged with at least one felony crime because they charted they checked on the veterans at the facility when surveillance video shows they didn't do the work.
Ultimately, Gov. Rick Snyder and other leaders at the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency believe the privatization had to happen as part of a transition process.
Leaders now believe progress has been made after J2S didn't get a contract renewal last year.
“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,” Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency Director James Robert Redford said.
Redford said the home has increased staffing, instituted both member location checks and random checks of reports by each assistant director of nursing. He indicated nurse aide services are now provided at the home by two different companies, MAXIM and CareerStaff Unlimited.
“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.”
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