By State Senator Julie Lassa
When investigative reports documenting problems at the State Veterans Home at King first appeared, my primary emotion was one of frustration that it took so long for the stories of these veterans and their families to be heard. I had been trying for many months to get the administration or the Legislature to investigate what I was hearing about conditions at King, but it was not until the investigative stories in the Capital Times were about to appear that either of them took any action.
The newspaper articles documented many of the same kinds of issues I have been hearing from veterans, family members, and past and present employees there, including unsanitary conditions, antiquated beds and equipment, and chronic understaffing that resulted in a decline in patient care. The story told of residents who can’t get to the toilet on their own having long waits for assistance, which can leave them having to sit in their own waste. Photos showed basins of yellow water with unsafe levels of lead contamination, and at one point a water heater was contaminated with the bacteria that causes Legionnaires Disease. And more than a dozen residents and staff interviewed for the story described some King residents being “snowed,” heavily drugged with painkillers and left in a zombie-like state. Several family members charged that the poor treatment their loved ones received at King contributed to their deaths.
Even more concerning was that many of the people interviewed were afraid to come forward publicly for fear of retribution. This is certainly consistent with the constituents who have contacted my office, nearly all of whom did not want to be identified because they were afraid of the consequences. That veterans, family members and employees at King would be forced to tolerate these conditions in a climate of fear is appalling and unacceptable.
It’s not that King suffers from a lack of resources. In fact, as the story documents, millions in federal dollars flowing to the veterans homes are being diverted from them to pay for salaries and administrative costs and to keep the state veterans trust fund solvent. It certainly appears that King is being filled nearly to capacity with patients who have increasingly demanding needs for care, in order to generate the most federal money possible.
As the stories appeared, Republican leaders in the Legislature called for a state audit of King, and Governor Walker announced that the Department of Health Services would investigate. While it’s high time for action to address the situation at King, the fact is that they have known there were problems there for many months, and they failed to act until now.
In March, 2015, when I shared what I was hearing about King with the Division of Quality Assurance at the Department of Health Services, their response was that “We have determined that no member suffered a negative outcome and so no further action can be taken by us at this time.” When I requested the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to investigate last October, I was forwarded a letter of denial from the Department of Veterans Affairs that called the allegations “untrue and harmful.” And I have discussed the situation at King directly with Governor Walker on two separate occasions. No action was taken until the Capital Times story was about to appear.
I’m glad that Governor Walker and the chairs of the Joint Audit Committee have finally joined me in calling for an audit at King. But it’s shameful that they ignored the complaints of our veterans when I alerted them 18 months ago, and failed to take action until bad publicity forced them to act. That’s why I have called for the federal Veterans Administration to investigate King, so that independent investigators can get to the bottom of the problems there. The veterans who sacrificed so much for us deserve the best possible care, and it’s time to make sure they get it.