WASHINGTON – Six veterans’ groups are calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve the quality of care at its nursing homes following a story by USA TODAY and The Boston Globe detailing “blatant disregard for veteran safety” at a VA nursing home in Massachusetts.
“Anybody who respects veterans should be angered by this,” American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad said. “America’s veterans deserve better.”
The groups, who together represent nearly 5 million members, said veterans who risked their lives for our country shouldn’t have to risk their lives in VA nursing homes.
In Brockton, Massachusetts, investigators found two nurses asleep during their shifts, even though the facility knew it was under scrutiny and inspectors were coming to visit, looking for potential signs of patient neglect. A whistleblower had reported that nurses and aides did not empty the bedside urinals of frail veterans, they failed to provide clean water at night and didn’t check on the veterans regularly. The VA said the napping nurses no longer work at the facility.
The story was the latest in an investigation by USA TODAY and the Globe that revealed care at many VA nursing facilities was worse than at private nursing homes in the agency’s own internal ratings, kept secret from veterans for years.
The stories detailed disturbing examples of substandard care – a veteran with undiagnosed scabies for months, another struggling to eat in Bedford, Massachussetts; and a third sitting for hours in soiled sheets and another writhing in pain without medication in West Palm Beach, Florida.
A Navy veteran was declared dead after he walked out of a supposedly secure VA nursing home and was never found in Tuskegee, Alabama. An Army vet landed in intensive care suffering from malnutrition, septic shock and bed sores after a stay at a VA nursing home in Livermore, California.
“The stories being reported about the treatment of some individual veterans at these facilities are nothing short of horrifying,” said Rege Riley, national commander of American Veterans, known as AmVets. He called on VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to “take swift and transparent action to fix this.”
Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Vietnam Veterans of America joined AmVets and the Legion in calling for action. Together, the groups are known as the “big six” and wield considerable clout in Washington.
“The VA must address and correct these issues,” said Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans.
VA 'striving to improve'
VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the residents the VA typically cares for are sicker than those in private nursing homes, making “achieving good quality ratings more challenging.” He said that overall, VA nursing homes “compare well” with the private sector.
“We look forward to briefing each of these groups in the near future regarding these crucial facts,” Cashour said, adding that the VA is “continuously striving to improve all of its health care facilities.”
The VA has 133 nursing homes across the country that serve 46,000 veterans annually.
Newly released VA data show that 95 of them – about 71 percent – scored worse than private nursing homes on a majority of quality indicators, such as rates of infection, serious pain and bed sores.
Roughly the same number, 93, received only one or two stars out of five for quality in the agency’s own ratings.
In a scathing statement declaring those facilities “failures,” VFW National Commander Vincent “B.J.” Lawrence said the VA “must improve its delivery of quality care at these facilities.”
"(Veterans') families deserve to know that their loved ones – their heroes – are not being abandoned or abused, and America needs to be reassured that the VA is honoring our nation's promise to those who have borne the battle," he said.
Call for transparency
Reistad, the Legion's commander, added, “We not only expect VA to fix these problems immediately, but we want transparency.” On Sunday, after his group met with VA officials, he said he is confident they will work with the Legion and the other groups to “institute needed improvements.”
The VA released the quality information on its nursing homes only after learning in June that USA TODAY and the Globe planned to publish it. The agency still has not released the results of inspections.
“Why not?” asked Rick Weidman, co-founder of Vietnam Veterans of America. He said his group often has to “fight like hell with VA in order to get information.”
The reports can include instances of neglect or poor conditions that can be a tip-off to current and prospective residents about problems at a facility.
“I don’t see how veterans are best served by the VA not being open about the level of care it’s providing,” AmVets spokesman John Hoellwarth said.
Cashour said the VA is working with an outside contractor who conducts the inspections, Wisconsin-based Long Term Care Institute, to remove patient information from its reports before they are released, maybe by the end of the year.
Private nursing homes have three years’ worth of inspection reports posted on a federal website, Nursing Home Compare.
Lawmakers demand answers
In September, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law legislation requiring the VA to publish quality ratings going forward. The law does not mention inspection reports.
The Republican-led House VA Committee launched an investigation of VA nursing home care after the initial USA TODAY and Globe reports, but a spokeswoman, Molly Jenkins, said the probe won’t be finished in time to hold a hearing this year as anticipated. The Democrat poised to take over the committee in January, Rep. Mark Takano of California, said it is a “critical issue that will continue to be a priority.”
In Massachusetts, home to two, one-star VA nursing homes – in Bedford and Brockton – lawmakers are demanding to know what steps the VA has taken to improve patient care there and at other facilities around the country.
“The continued care lapses at VA facilities raise questions about whether concrete, lasting measures are being implemented to prevent misconduct from occurring again – or whether certain VA facilities are unable to institute changes necessary to provide our veterans with the care befitting their service to the country,” Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, both Democrats from Massachusetts, wrote in a letter to Wilkie.
They demanded the most recent report from the Long Term Care Institute inspection of the Brockton VA nursing home.
Full Article & Source:
‘Nothing short of horrifying:’ Veterans' groups demand fixes at VA nursing homes