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Federal ratings at Wisconsin veterans nursing homes drop again
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Federal ratings at Wisconsin veterans nursing homes drop again

From the Neglecting Wisconsin’s vets: Ongoing Cap Times coverage of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs series
King Marden Center (copy) (copy)

The Wisconsin Veterans Home at King is located in Waupaca County.

Federal quality ratings of the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King and the Veterans Home at Union Grove have dropped again, prompting one Republican state lawmaker to call for the veterans agency to “totally clean house.” 

The ratings changes come after annual inspections and complaint investigations were conducted there in September.

One hall at the King veterans home in Waupaca County is now rated "below average" by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency that regulates and inspects all nursing facilities nationwide.

CMS released new scores for nursing homes on its five-star rating system this month which now include annual re-certification inspections and citations that were issued to the homes earlier this year. The agency uses a five-star ratings system to score nursing homes and rank health care, staffing and quality of life for its residents. Health care inspections are the only component of the CMS rating system that are not self-reported by the facility and are independently reviewed. 

Olson Hall, one of four nursing home halls on King's campus, is now rated two stars out of five overall, a "below average" rating, according to CMS. Its health care quality rating is one star out of five, a "much below average" mark.

Olson Hall has received 10 health deficiencies from CMS, including a citation from March given for an incident at the home that resulted in a resident's death. After that happened, the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates the homes, was fined $76,900 but is still appealing the citation through a legal appeals process, said agency spokeswoman Carla Vigue. The federal government upheld the citation in November but a second appeal from the veterans agency is being reviewed by an administrative law judge. It is not known when a decision will be made.

MacArthur Hall, also on King's campus, was previously given five stars both overall and for its health care ratings, dropped to four stars in both categories, still an "above average" designation. 

In October, state health inspectors found 38 instances of medical errors in MacArthur Hall, including residents being given the wrong medication, incorrect dosages or never receiving needed medicine.

Boland Hall, the residence hall at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at Union Grove, dropped from four stars to three stars in its overall rating, and from three stars to two stars for a "below average" rating for health quality.  

In its most recent inspection, Boland Hall received 13 deficiencies, almost double the national average, according to CMS. 

Republican state Sen. Luther Olsen, who represents the district in which the King Veterans Home sits, said the new ratings validate complaints that employees at the home and some residents there have made. In September, a Cap Times investigation highlighted allegations of neglect, deteriorating facilities and ongoing staffing shortages there. At the same time, money has been transferred away from the home and used for other veterans agency needs, like salaries.  

"The people who have been talking about this have now been vindicated that what they said was exactly the truth," Olsen said. "There's no more covering up the situation up there which is atrocious for our veterans."

Gov. Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates the nursing homes, have consistently touted the King home's CMS ratings, which have historically been above average.

"Governor Walker's top concern is the care of our veterans. The governor has made significant investments to help the department improve staffing and operations of the homes," said Walker spokesman Tom Evenson in an email.

The agency also defended the homes Wednesday.

"While the health inspections subcategory has experienced a drop in ratings, all of our Wisconsin Veterans Homes continue to receive four- or five-star ratings on the quality of care delivered to our members and how well we staff our facilities across the board," WDVA's Vigue said in an email. "Ensuring that veterans and those living at our homes receive the best care possible (is) something we take very seriously and work very hard at. As always, when issues do arise during these inspections, just as they do in any 24-hour skilled nursing facility, corrective action plans are put in place so that we may make improvements."

WDVA Sec. John Scocos, who announced his resignation last month, has dismissed concerns about the home's quality and staffing levels. He has said that news reports about issues there are politically motivated and inaccurate. 

In October, each nursing hall at the King veterans home was awarded five stars, a first-time milestone that reflected its high quality, Scocos said in a press release at the time.

Scocos has maintained that the home offers the highest quality of care available for the state's aging and sick veterans. 

"We are still the very best in the country ... we are pretty solid on what we believe is the care for our veterans,” Scocos said at a legislative hearing on the King home in September. 

State lawmakers from both parties approved an audit of the King veterans home in September. A report on conditions there is due sometime next year. 

Olsen, who called for the audit, said the new ratings call into question the reliability of King's past high CMS ratings.  

“The thing that concerns me is was the five stars real or is this real and how did a facility go from five stars to two stars in a short period of time?" Olsen said. "Were they ever five stars?"

Senate Majority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said the new ratings show that the CMS system is flawed and said the Legislature should do more. 

"Rather than addressing issues with staff shortages, outdated medical equipment and crumbling infrastructure, Republicans relied on a flawed rating system to justify their inaction and ignore serious concerns from veterans and staff," Shilling said in an email. 

Scocos is set to leave office Jan. 7 and Walker's office has said a replacement will be announced around that time. Evenson said quality care at the veterans homes will be a focus for whoever takes over at WDVA. 

"The next secretary's top priority will be to ensure our veterans are receiving the best services possible," Evenson said.

Walker is considering several applicants to replace Scocos and has met with and solicited input from several veterans groups statewide. 

He is scheduled to meet with several representatives from the County Veterans Service Officers Association today. 

Olsen said the new ratings highlight the need for someone from outside of WDVA to come in and lead it. 

“I think we need to totally clean house and the new secretary needs to come from outside, not more of the same cover-up mentality and retaliation mentality,” he said. 

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Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.

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