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Veterans Affairs Secretary: Top issue at King veterans home is staffing

Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Dan Zimmerman testified Wednesday before the Joint Finance Committee.

The state’s new veterans affairs secretary acknowledged Wednesday the agency previously focused on filling beds at the King Veterans Home to the detriment of staff, but said despite recent reports about problems it remains “a gem.”

Secretary Daniel Zimmerman told the Joint Finance Committee the agency previously directed the veterans home commandant to fill 710 out of 721 beds by a certain date, something he said can’t continue. Zimmerman recently replaced the commandant at King.

“If you keep beds up at that level, what does it do to that staff?” Zimmerman said. “You ride your staff into the ground. You can’t do that.”

Zimmerman was responding to Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, who noted King had for years been a top-rated nursing home, but became “a cash cow for the veterans trust fund.” The fund pays for other services the state provides to veterans, but is no longer supported by state tax dollars.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” Olsen said. “What I do have a problem with … I think your predecessors nickeled and dimed the place to get as much money as possible in the trust fund. You can do that for a while, but I think it’s caught up with King.”

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, sharply disputed Zimmerman’s characterization that staff morale is strong based on communication she has had with staff members. She said they had been instructed not to communicate with legislators.

“They need to be paid better, they need to see their families,” Shankland said. “I’m frustrated you call morale as not being low. The only reason they are there right now is because of the veterans they serve.”

Zimmerman sharply disputed Shankland’s characterization, saying “you’re describing a situation that is not true.”

“To a person, that I’ve met there, they’re all working their tails off to do the best possible thing for veterans,” Zimmerman said.

“I would tell you King is a gem right now but after $2 million of bad publicity, it’s not looking like a gem,” Zimmerman added. “I will do what I can to rinse off the gem. People that are residents there, they know the good that’s happening.”

Bipartisan praise

Zimmerman, a retired Army officer who replaced John Scocos in February, largely received bipartisan praise for his qualifications and work so far. He said one of his easiest decisions was to reopen a coffee shop at King that had been closed — which had angered many of the residents — because it was losing $7,000.

“What that should show to you is the level of detail I’m looking at things that occurred in the past,” he said.

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Zimmerman told the committee that Gov. Scott Walker’s budget provides the resources to address forced overtime at King, where the facilities’ top federal ratings have slipped amid increased public scrutiny of aging facilities and poor patient care.

The State Journal reported in 2013 on an increasing number of citations at King, including one for not thoroughly searching for a missing 79-year-old Korean War veteran who drowned in a foot of water. The Capital Times also reported in August on the deteriorating conditions at King. Lawmakers later called for an audit of the facility.

Asked by Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, what big picture issues need to be addressed, Zimmerman highlighted communication between administration and staff and forced overtime.

“The workforce there has done an incredible job working through the challenges they face,” Zimmerman said. “All the metrics that we’ve seen show that we’re providing top-notch care. But when you’re providing top-notch care and you’re working forced overtime, that puts a tremendous amount of stress on the staff to continue doing that.”

Zimmerman also said a controversial legislative proposal Scocos once promoted to consolidate county veterans service offices “is dead.”

“The last thing you want to do is pull back your scouts before you do an operation,” Zimmerman said. “If anything, we’re pushing more of our assets out to support them. It’s 180 degrees.”

Walker’s budget proposal converts 7.3 positions from central administration in Madison to direct care at the King home. It also creates a new liaison position for the county offices.

Lawmakers from both parties heaped praise on Zimmerman. Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said she was doing cartwheels hearing him talk about the need to address veteran homelessness, jobs and mental health issues.

Zimmerman wasn’t able to address Democrats’ questions about what happened to $18.5 million in veterans home repairs the agency requested in the 2015-17 budget but was denied by the Walker administration. The agency didn’t seek the funds in its latest budget request.

Zimmerman said he plans to spend a day meeting with officials at each of the veterans homes with the goal of identifying which facility issues need to be addressed.

He also said solutions for funding the veterans fund can’t be addressed in the current budget and will need to be studied over the next two years.

Editor's Note: The first reference to the King Veterans Home was restored to this story.

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