Lawmakers grill Minneapolis Vets Home leaders over problems

Charles Cox and Jeff Johnson
Charles Cox, interim executive director and Jeff Johnson, board chairman of the Minnesota Veterans Home testify at a legislative hearing.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

The hearings came nine days after Governor Pawlenty ordered state monitoring of the Minneapolis Veterans Home. He took the action after state inspections that found evidence of neglect and errors in the care of three patients who had recently died. Appearing before the Senate health and human services committee, Joan Willshire said her 80-year-old uncle, Harlon Jason, was one of the three. She says he died in January after receiving improper treatment for his diabetes. Willshire says her uncle had lived in the Veterans Home for two years, and liked it there.

"He played cards there with his friends, and he really enjoyed life," she said. "And he was thriving these last two years. Our veterans should be treated with respect and dignity. After all, he was a veteran. He was a father, he was a husband, he was a friend and he was my uncle. He deserved better." Legislators said constituents have been expressing outrage about the problems at the Minneapolis Veterans Home.

"People ask me at the Legion and the VFW, they say 'what the hell is going on here?' And that 'something needs to be done,'" said Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley. Koering says he has a lot of admiration for veterans. He's also growing angry about the deficiencies in patient care at the Minneapolis Veterans Home.

Home with a troubled history
Three nursing home residents died in January after medication errors at the 418-bed home with a troubled history, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty sent in the state Health Department to monitor operations last week. Now the department is fining the home $1,850 a day.
Minnesota Veterans Home

"When we're asking somebody to join the military and put their lives on the line, and we can't even come through for them on something as simple as their care. I don't know why anybody would want to join the military. If we're not going to follow through on the promises that we've made, why would they even join the military?" he said.

Department of Health inspectors uncovered more than two dozen violations in patient care during an inspection of the home in November. A follow-up inspection last month found six of the of those violations had not been fixed. The state has imposed daily fines of $1,850 until those violations are corrected. Inspectors also found three more problems. Federal officials have threatened to cut funding to the home if problems aren't resolved.

Charles Cox, interim executive director of the home, says he's working diligently to address every violation and restore morale among the staff. "I believe and I know -- I spent 18 years of my life at the Veterans Home in Minneapolis -- it is a good facility," Cox said. "It has very good people in it doing the job. We will fix the problems, whether it be in staffing, whether it be in how we deliver care. We will fix it, and we will fix it right."

But legislators have heard similar promises before. In 2005, Health Department inspectors issued 27 citations for care and safety violations at the Minneapolis Veterans Home.

Employees testify
Veterans Home employees (left to right) Sam Bettie, Shawn Berry and Pat Richie, testify at a legislative hearing.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"You don't in any way give us any confidence that things are really changing," said Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon. DFL-Duluth. "You just keep saying 'I hope things are changing.' And I don't see your direction changing from when you were here earlier this year or in years past. And things haven't changed. They've just gotten worse."

State veterans organization are also keeping a close eye on the Minneapolis home and state government's response. Al Loehr, of the Minnesota VFW, says he thinks there are too many holes in the home's management structure. He wants the patient care problems fixed once and for all.

"We're going to be in there trying to assist and help the board in any way we can to bring the support necessary to move forward rather than sitting in a status quo quagmire," Loehr said.

The Minnesota Veterans Homes Board, which governs the state-owned nursing home, has hired a consulting firm to supervise the day-to-day operations. The state Health Department will monitor the home until the consulting firm begins its work next week.