Gov. Scott Walker and state lawmakers from both parties are calling for investigations into the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King.
The requests come after a story published by the Cap Times on Monday raised issues from employees, residents and family members of dismal care, medical errors and prolonged staffing shortages at the home, the largest in the state.
Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary John Scocos maintains the home provides top-quality care. Carla Vigue, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an email that the secretary and the agency support a federal investigation and legislative audit.
Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said in an email Tuesday that Walker has requested a review of the Veterans Home at King by the state Department of Health Services’ Division of Quality Assurance. That agency routinely inspects the King home, along with every nursing home in the state. DHS has been dispatched by the governor to investigate complaints at King before, according to letters from the agency provided to the Cap Times.
"We take any concerns raised seriously," Evenson wrote.
Republican and Democratic state lawmakers say they do, too, and are also calling for reviews.
State Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, said the group plans to convene in the next three weeks to authorize an audit of the home.
"It is our intention at this point to do the audit and we’re trying to get the committee schedule together," Cowles said. "There’s clearly will to do this on a bipartisan basis."
The audit would likely center around finances, staffing levels, family and staff satisfaction, reports brought to King’s ombudsman and the condition of the facility, Cowles said.
"This would be a significant audit, either six months or nine months at this point," he said. "This is important when there’s issues of veterans not getting treated right so we’ve got to …try to fix it."
Last week, state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, called on the committee to authorize an audit. State Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, petitioned the committee for one nearly a year ago. She sent a letter in October 2015 outlining some constituent concerns at King, but the committee did not act on her letter at the time.
Cowles acknowledged Lassa's letter but said he is sensitive to the limited resources of the Legislative Audit Bureau and said the committee has to prioritize what audits it authorizes.
"We try to be responsive. There are things going on where there are requests for audits and you can't get to them because there's a higher priority at the moment," he said. "But this one ... (the) story makes it very evident that there is a problem."
Lassa and four other Democratic state senators, Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-LaCrosse, Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, and Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, have also called for a federal investigation into the home. The lawmakers sent a letter Tuesday to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald, calling for his agency to conduct a review.
Evenson said the Walker administration welcomes an audit by the Legislative Audit Committee, but he did not say whether the governor supports a federal investigation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Olsen and Cowles said they support a federal investigation into the home.
"I don’t care what we have to do as long as we get it straightened out up there,” Olsen said.
"Sure, why not?" Cowles said.
Critics have questioned the independence and reliability of reviews done by DHS since the agency has not flagged major issues at the King home before and is, along with the state Department of Veterans Affairs, a cabinet agency under Walker.
Evenson disputed that criticism, and said that the agency's Division of Quality Assurance is headed by a civil servant who has been in the job since 2005.
"Any suggestion DQA cannot do its job fairly and effectively is an insult to the people who work hard every day to ensure the quality of care at facilities across the state," he said in an email.
Cowles also said the Legislative Audit Bureau is fair and independent with a strong track record of uncovering problems.
"They work for the Legislature. They're totally nonpartisan. They don't work for the governor’s office," he said. "They have created equal opportunities for embarrassment for both parties."
Federal tax dollars are the primary source of income for the King home, which has reaped million-dollar surpluses over the last five years.
Scocos highlighted the surplus revenues in a press release Monday, noting that all the state's veterans homes have "undergone a financial turnaround" from a $12.8 million deficit in 2011 to more than $40 million in surplus revenue in 2016. Scocos said the state has reinvested more than $150 million back into the homes.
He did not address specific concerns raised by employees, family members and residents about spending priorities and care at King, as the agency has transferred more than $20 million in federal funds away from it, largely unheard of among publicly funded nursing homes, according to several researchers.
Scocos also emphasized the group's high federal ratings and said King provides "safe, top-quality care to our nation's heroes."
"We want veterans and their families to enjoy living at King while also receiving the top-quality care they deserve," Scocos wrote. "Our record reflects that attitude. Wisconsin should be proud of our veterans homes."