Wisconsin Veterans Affairs Secretary Dan Zimmerman attempted to assure concerned state lawmakers at a Tuesday hearing that the department is working aggressively to deal with nursing shortages and worker dissatisfaction at the King veterans home.
The Legislature’s Audit Committee hearing turned testy at times as both Republicans and Democrats quizzed Zimmerman about his plans for improvement at King in light of a critical audit and the type of oversight that lawmakers would have over operations there. Republican Rep. John Nygren said he wanted to talk about “the good, the bad and the ugly” at King, while Democratic Rep. Melissa Sargent accused Zimmerman of being childish when he bristled at her questions about wanting to see details of his long-term improvement plan.
“Are there areas to improve? You bet. Sure there are. And we’ve been working on them,” Zimmerman told the committee, which is comprised of Republicans and Democrats from the Senate and Assembly.
An audit released in August found that King has not been able to keep additional nursing positions filled, leading to a dramatic increase in overtime and complaints. It found that over a two-year period, the bureau received 47 complaints about King, most of which were staff-related, including concerns about overtime.
The Audit Bureau surveyed workers at King in November and 75 percent said the overall morale of employees was “poor” or “very poor.”
Nygren, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee, told Zimmerman that if he doesn’t address worker dissatisfaction, he fears attitudes will worsen and Zimmerman will find himself before the committee again.
“Please, take that morale issue seriously,” Nygren told Zimmerman.
Zimmerman said he does take morale seriously and he believes that if the survey were done now the numbers would be improved. Zimmerman took over as Veterans secretary in February, three months after the survey was done.
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Forced OT a concern
While praising staff at King as “extremely dedicated,” Zimmerman said the largest personnel-related challenge is a shortage of nursing staff, specifically certified nursing assistants. That shortage has led to an increase in forced overtime, which Zimmerman said “has placed an unsustainable burden on the employees as well as the department budget.”
In 2016, on average, 685 veterans and their spouses received care at King. The Legislature in 2013 authorized King to hire nearly 83 additional nurses to address concerns about the level of care at the facility.
Despite the authority to hire more nurses, the number of vacancies increased from 32 in June 2012 to 47 in June 2016, the audit said. That resulted in the number of overtime hours increasing to the point where the 65,100 hours worked in 2016 exceeded the 64,300 worked before the additional positions were authorized.
Zimmerman said that while he wants to reduce overtime, both forced and voluntary, he won’t sacrifice patient care to do it.
“I’m not going to skimp on care, I guarantee you that,” he said.
Zimmerman said the department was pursuing numerous initiatives to combat the nursing shortage, including protecting new hires from mandatory overtime, increasing the number of weekends off, hiring a nurse recruiter and developing an on-site day care for employees with young children.
The audit recommended that the Veterans department report back to lawmakers by January on progress it is making in filling nursing vacancies and reducing the amount of overtime.
The Legislature included even more reporting requirements and oversight of departmental fund transfers in the state budget, but Gov. Scott Walker — who appointed Zimmerman — vetoed those.