GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. - One of the Democratic party's top candidates to be the next governor in Michigan says she wants to make some big changes at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans.
Former state lawmaker, Gretchen Whitmer told WZZM 13 she wants to bring state employees back in to the facility to take care of veterans at the Home for Veterans. Approximately five years ago, Gov. Rick Snyder approved contract workers to be hired to do the work. It was expected at the time that privatizing the jobs would save $4.2 million annually.
But leaders have questioned whether the savings were worth it considering what veterans had to go through over the last few years.
"What I would have done as Governor was never privatized the care of our veterans," Whitmer said. "People who have served our country and paid their dues deserve the respect of being cared for in a professional way."
The 13 Watchdog team has highlighted serious issues at the Home for Veterans for more than two years now. Our investigation concluded the privatization triggered years of terrible understaffing, documented substandard care and a caregiver's criminal conviction for vulnerable adult abuse.
"The story is a government that tried to pinch pennies and endangered people in the process," Whitmer said.
In addition to the abuse case, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced in July he was criminally charging close to a dozen former contract workers with falsifying medical records.
Schuette's decision to charge was largely based on an investigation done by the Michigan Office of the Auditor General in February 2016. It found workers were signing off on member location sheets showing they had done welfare checks on veterans inside the Home for Veterans, but video observed at the time of the auditor general's investigation found the workers didn't do the checks at all.
Schuette's case against the workers suffered a blow this fall as a Kent County judge dismissed much of the case citing a lack of evidence a crime was committed.
Although the criminal case was tossed, it's clear from the Auditor General's report, workers didn't do their jobs.
Whitmer's call for change isn't new. Democrats have said for years getting rid of state employees inside the Home for Veterans was a terrible mistake. They pointed to the testimonial of Vietnam Veteran Tony Spallone as a reason to reverse history.
Spallone said at the time caregivers 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.
Gov. Snyder and leaders within the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency do not appear interested in bringing state workers back into the facility. Many blame the original contractor J2s for staffing failures and say two new contractors, Maxim and Career Staff Unlimited, brought in late last year to staff caregivers at the facility are performing well.
"The first year of these contracts (2016-2017) have seen drastic improvement in staffing numbers from the previous contract," Michigan Veterans Health System COO Steve Rolston wrote in a statement to us. "If one contractor is unable to fulfill our request for staff, the other contractor will jump in and fill the vacancy. The two administrative teams work together and regular meetings are held with Grand Rapids Home for Veterans administration and jointly, the two providers."
In August, the Michigan Office of the Auditor General released a report whether the facility had improved over the last year. They checked to see whether the new contractors met an established targeted daily staffing level of 115 nursing aides.
The report concluded: "Although the targeted staffing level was not met by the contractors every day during the two months that we reviewed, we noted that staffing provided represented a significant improvement from the February 2016 audit."
This summer, 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 (nurse aide) contracts with Maxim and CSU were effective 10/01/16 for one year," Rolston wrote. "That contract allows for six one-year renewals of which the state has exercised the first effective 10/01/17."
That suggests if Whitmer is elected to be Governor and chooses to make changes, it would be late 2019 or likely later before it could happen.
The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency 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.
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WZZM 13 app now.
© 2018 WZZM-TV