Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Dan Zimmerman defended his agency's management of the state's largest nursing home this week, saying news coverage and commentary on King concentrates on the negative and ignores the positive.
The Cap Times obtained a copy of an email Zimmerman sent Sunday to department employees, following the Friday release of a state-ordered financial audit of the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King. The veterans agency confirmed the email and its contents.
The audit examined how the agency has managed money at King, looking at the funds it has generated, spent and transferred from the home for more than decade. Auditors confirmed that the department diverted $55 million away from the home over a decade and noted that though it had excess cash reserves, it delayed several capital projects there from 2011 to 2016. It also did not create a 10-year facilities plan for the home, according to the audit. Auditors had recommended the agency do that following a 2010 review of the state's veterans homes.
Zimmerman said the department has been working on a plan and said the media and lawmakers' focus did not include improvements and investments that the agency has made at King: $118 million in capital improvements over 10 years and a new nursing facility.
"Headlines hyperventilate over the fact that over a lengthy period $55 million was transferred from the Homes account — implying that those dollars could have been better spent at King," he wrote.
A new $80 million nursing facility, Moses Hall, which is funded with state and federal money, is scheduled to be completed in 2019 at King, which is located in Waupaca County. It is set to replace Burns-Clemens Hall, an aging residential building that has sat vacant for at least 20 years.
In its first article reporting on conditions at the King home last year, the Cap Times reported the investments the agency said it was making.
"The agency acknowledges King’s surpluses and said it has reinvested more into the home than it has transferred out of it. It says it has invested or plans to invest more than $116 million into King across 39 maintenance and new construction projects since 2011, many of which are set to start later this year or next year," according to the August 2016 story.
In the Sunday email to staff, Zimmerman said how things were handled at King previously is "not of immediate concern."
"What is key is that things are being handled effectively now," he wrote.
The audit noted that it took seven years to replace urine-soaked carpet in King's Ainsworth Hall, which houses residents with dementia. It is one of five nursing facilities on the campus.
Zimmerman took exception to how the carpet replacement was characterized.
"In this report, getting excited over Ainsworth Hall carpeting, already replaced four years ago, does not help us going forward nor does it help the Legislature and Wisconsinites understand what is actually occurring now at King," he wrote. He said the carpet delay, among others, was due in part to "procedures and personnel" that are no longer in place.
Zimmerman commended King employees for not replacing the carpet immediately, noting that "clever, proactive King staff devised a workaround that fixed the problem, prolonged the life of the carpet, and saved the state money," he wrote. "The report also does not mention that member care — the most critical consideration — was in no way negatively impacted by this action."
Carpet on Ainsworth's first floor was replaced following seven years of delay and after the agency received hundreds of thousands of dollars for the project from the Department of Administration.
The state Department of Veterans Affairs first requested and received "all agency" funding from DOA for the carpet project during the 2005-07 biennium. At that time, King staff said the carpeting was affecting staff and resident well-being.
“Despite an active, ongoing cleaning program, the flooring has become urine soaked and soiled to the point where acceptable cleaning is not possible. In addition, during cleaning processes, odors are so strong that resident and employee health and well-being suffers,” staff wrote at that time, according to the audit.
DVA received $1.7 million in DOA money for King projects in 2005-07 — including $225,000 it said it would spend on the Ainsworth carpet — but did not start the project, according to the audit. DVA was given another $1.5 million in "all agency" funding in the 2007-09 biennium, $282,200 to be used for the carpet project. The department didn't start the carpeting project then, either.
"In July 2012, DVA sought administrative approval from DOA to initiate the project, more than seven years after the funding was first requested," according to the audit.
DVA then got approval that year to spend $118,800 on the carpeting project. It completed the project in 2013, $53,500 over budget, spending $172,300, according to the audit.
A second soiled carpet project on the second floor was not completed until September 2016, according to DVA. The department first requested money for that project in the current 2016-17 fiscal year. The second floor replacement project came in $8,000 under budget, according to the audit.
In his email to staff, Zimmerman wrote that he shared the frustration of employees and said he aims to work hard to support veterans.
"There is little we can all do to impact what is reported. So I ask you not to expend any energy on that task," he said.
He also noted that "actions speak louder than words" and emphasized that "senior leadership will continue fighting the good fight against the forces that wish to impede our success."