Gov. Scott Walker has appointed an Army veteran from Ripon as the new secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs with instructions to look into persistent reports of serious deficiencies in care at the state’s largest veterans nursing home.
Daniel Zimmerman replaces John Scocos, who resigned effective last month amid a flurry of published reports about inadequate care at the King Veterans home.
Walker’s office said in a press release Thursday the governor “is directing Mr. Zimmerman to immediately conduct a thorough assessment of the operations at Wisconsin’s veterans homes.”
Last year, Walker and Scocos pointed publicly to the nursing home’s high quality-of-care ratings while defending it against newspaper articles on complaints about poor care.
In December it came to light that the federal ratings should have been downgraded but a reporting omission by the state caused an eight-month delay.
Ratings were lowered last year because of serious quality-of-care problems discovered after the February death of a 94-year-old resident and because of additional citations issued after a regularly scheduled inspection.
Federal regulators notified the veterans affairs department in June that it was being fined $76,900 after rejecting the state’s appeal of the most serious violation. In September, a legislative committee ordered an audit of the veterans homes. In November Walker announced Scocos would resign.
Federal regulators had notified the state on June 1 that it was being fined $76,900 in connection with the most serious citation, but the penalty wasn’t made public until December after a request by the Wisconsin State Journal.
Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the governor’s top concern is the care of Wisconsin’s veterans.
The union that represents workers at the home said they would welcome change, but that would mean the department would need to treat front-line staff better to reduce turnover and job vacancies that have been a problem since Walker’s Act 10 devalued employees by eliminating most public-sector union rights in 2011.
“Overburdened staff have been struggling to provide the best possible care for King residents despite years of short staffing,” Rick Badger, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 32, said in a statement.
“Without a fundamental improvement in the way staff are treated, the underlying conditions that make it hard to provide the best possible care will not change,” Badger said.
The union represents certified nursing assistants, food service workers, custodians and others at King, where there are more than 700 beds for veterans and family members.
Evenson said Walker’s efforts have delivered new employee positions, scheduling practices and increased compensation to help counter a national shortage of nurses.
The state also appropriated $100 million to replace a vacant residence hall and make other improvements.
Thursday’s release from the governor’s office said Walker has also told Zimmerman to schedule regular discussions with veterans groups.
The only group mentioned by name in the release was the County Veterans Service Officer Association, which has been unhappy with state changes affecting them.
Zimmerman retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 2008 after 25 years that included assignments in military intelligence, the governor’s office said.
While in the Army, Zimmerman received the Bronze Star Medal twice and the Meritorious Service Medal five times, the governor’s office said. Zimmerman holds a master’s degree in homeland security from American Military University in Charles Town, West Virginia, and received his bachelor’s degree from UW–La Crosse, the press release said.
After retirement he worked as a training consultant for the federal National Guard Bureau and as an exercise officer and threat planner for the state Department of Military Affairs emergency management division, the release said.
Zimmerman has served as vice president of the Ripon Area School District Board of Education, chairman of Big Hills Lake Management District, and president of two non-profit charitable organizations.
Zimmerman wasn’t among seven applicants the governor’s office disclosed in December.
His appointment is effective immediately, the governor’s office said.
“Dan’s career is defined by public service,” Walker said in the release. “Wisconsin’s veterans deserve the best care and services possible, and with Dan’s experience in the military and government, I know he will serve as a tireless advocate for Wisconsin’s veterans.”