For 130 years, Wisconsin provided care for our aging veterans. Our state committed resources to build a beautiful campus on the Chain O’ Lakes. Known as the Veterans Home at King, the home gives veterans and their families a picturesque retirement.
Recently, stories leaked out from King that all was not well. Delayed maintenance, slipping quality of care and management decisions in the name of cost cutting took away amenities central to veterans’ quality of life. Impersonal vending machines replaced the coffee shop stocked with home baked goods.
Concerned, Audit Committee members directed the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau to investigate. Recently, the Audit Committee held a public hearing to examine the LAB’s reports and plan future action.
Among many findings, auditors uncovered serious problems with short staffing and low staff morale. During the study period, auditors found overtime worked by staff was equivalent to hiring over 70 additional full-time staff. Staff were subject to mandatory overtime rules. High turnover especially hit part-time staff.
Three-fourths of staff who responded to an LAB survey reported staff morale was poor or very poor. Almost 40 percent of survey respondents said they planned to look for a job outside of King in the next six months. Seventy percent of respondents said they were not paid competitive wages. Half of survey respondents reported they were not happy with the way overtime was assigned. The vast majority (86 percent) responded that they “disagree” or “strongly disagree” that King had sufficient staff to handle the workload.
Committee members on both sides of the aisle expressed concerns about staffing and insisted funds intended for King were not siphoned off to pay for other budget needs.
I described the lawmakers’ worry in this way: King receives both state and federal funds. The money comes to the home with the understanding that it is for the care of specific veterans. The operating budget for King had extra money – what auditors called a surplus.
Why wasn’t the surplus in the operating budget used to fix problems at King? For example, there are two easy ways to fix overtime and retention problems: hire additional staff and pay them more than they would get elsewhere.
I asked Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Zimmerman, “So, the state is washing money designated for the veterans’ care at King through their budget and putting it into the Veterans Trust Fund to balance the fund and pay for other programs?”
Lawmakers and many veterans groups insist this surplus should go into the direct care of veterans at King first. The secretary’s response to inquiring committee members was that they “approved the transfer of funds from the home” when lawmakers approved the state budget.
Budget writing committee co-chair John Nygren, R-Marinette, said nothing “could be further from the truth.” He reminded the secretary that, just a few weeks ago, the budget committee unanimously approved new oversight measures on veterans home funds. Governor Scott Walker vetoed this legislative oversight.
This was not the first time the governor took away oversight powers by the legislature.
Auditors reported in 2013 Gov. Walker vetoed lawmakers’ oversight of the transfer of money from King for other purposes. The governor then took the largest single sum − $12 million − out of King’s budget in 2016. This transfer was so large, it ate into funds needed for regular operations.
I and others thought King should have spent MORE to keep up with the delayed maintenance, staffing and other problems.
The secretary hedged, was evasive or argued with members when asked about the transfers or complying with LAB’s request for documents. He called the press reports that drove the initial audit “unfounded negativity.” He argued against keeping licensed nursing home administrators at the home and, at times, discounted “morale” as a problem.
Audit members are united in their commitment that problems at King be resolved. Our Audit Committee will continue efforts to assure veterans’ homes are adequately funded and staffed.
The secretary would be wise to work with the Audit Committee as we act in our role as “stewards of the people’s money” for the protection of veterans at King and elsewhere.
Democrat Kathleen Vinehout, Alma, represents the 31st state Senate District.