I took a call from a woman from Tomah. She was concerned about the Union Grove Veterans Home. She heard the state was closing Assisted Living at Union Grove and called me in opposition. Her relatives lived at the facility.
Last week I learned about plans to close one Assisted Living wing at the Union Grove Home. The state operates two homes for veterans in need of nursing services - Union Grove in Racine County and the Veterans Home at King in Waupaca County. Construction is now underway for a third home in Chippewa County.
The existing homes have been under scrutiny by the Legislative Audit Bureau. Last Wednesday the Joint Committee on Audit, of which I am the Ranking Minority Member, held a hearing on the audit findings.
I voiced concerns about expanding the program when serious concerns remain about the management of the two homes.
Problems have existed for many years. But concerns about management became more public when dramatic rate increases drove some residents from the homes.
The audit identified problems with unauthorized purchases, irregularities in how rates for residents were set, in purchasing and contracts. Problems were also identified in staffing and excess overtime, in compliance with state and federal regulations and oversight and accountability.
While the homes are required by law to be self supporting, the audit shows they have not been self supporting. Both homes struggled financially. The home at Union Grove has never operated in the black - and would not have operated at all except for transfers of funds from King made possible by a one time settlement Medicaid check. The funds from this check will be gone in two or three years.
Secretary Black, who has led the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) for the past eighteen months, testified before the Audit Committee. He explained the progress he and his staff made in correcting problems.
The Secretary adopted new rules for setting rates for residents; stopped unauthorized payments, standardized policies and procedures including those related to purchasing and budgeting; created a strategic plan for the department; and developed a business plan for the new veterans home at Chippewa Falls.
Proponents of the Chippewa Falls home argued the home will be self sufficient. The Governor plans to operate the home with a private contract and sets aside seven million dollars to do this. But in my conversations with local nursing home administrators, many express concerns that too many empty nursing home beds already exist in western Wisconsin and the state does not pay nursing homes enough to cover the cost of resident’s care.
The Chippewa Falls home will be funded mainly with state Medicaid money and proponents assured no money will be taken from other homes to operate this new nursing facility.
Yet in the Governor’s budget proposal the DVA loses roughly $13 million over the two year budget. Over six million dollars are cut from help to needy or homeless veterans including cuts to a personal loan program. If you add in the seven million in new expenses for the contract to run the Chippewa Falls Veterans home, the department takes a $20 million hit or a 14% cut to the programs for our veterans.
The only agencies receiving a greater budget cut - excluding those that are eliminated or privatized - are the Tech College System and Workforce Development.
Secretary Black spoke about how the budget cuts will negatively impact the veterans’ community. He noted at the hearing when services and benefits are cut veterans will suffer.
Secretary Black also cautioned about the new challenges the department faces as new veterans return home. He said those coming back from the current crisis of 10 years at war are bringing back the challenges associated with being in combat for three, four or five tours. Many veterans are suffering from multiple amputees, PTSD, or traumatic brain injury. They struggle with unemployment, divorce and homelessness. Many are at risk for suicide.
Budgets are about priorities and our obligation is to our veterans.
In a time when the state is all about jobs we should not slash the budget of those who retrain our returning veterans and develop our workforce. At a time when veterans are returning to our state in numbers not seen for a generation, we should not slash services to veterans.