'Disturbing' hearing on care at veterans' home

GRAND RAPIDS, MI - Four months after an audit highlighted continued problems at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, residents still feel they are getting poor care.

Several residents of the home, one of two in the state, said during a Monday, June 13, Michigan House committee hearing that the facility is still understaffed and that caregivers don't care.

"We're always short. We never have enough people," said Norman Tope, who lives in the home at 3000 Monroe Ave. NE. "You can ring the bell and sometimes it takes a half-hour to 45 minutes to come in and take you to the bathroom.

"(The caregivers) just don't care."

State House committees on oversight and ethics and on military and veterans affairs held a joint hearing at the veterans' home. The hearing was held at the home to give residents who are unable to travel to the state Capitol a chance to speak.

Lawmakers heard stories about residents who died after moving into the Home due to recurring bouts of pneumonia, alleged medication errors and, in one case, a beating by another resident. Other residents voiced more general concerns about the private contractors who supply caregivers to the home.

"It takes certain people to be a caregiver," resident Tony Spallone said. "It comes from the heart.

"You guys have the power to put the money where you want it. Bring the state workers back."

The home in 2013 laid off more than 140 unionized caregivers and began contracting with a private company to save an estimated $4 million annually. A state audit released this February said workers at the Home falsely claimed they were checking on patients after being alerted of possible falls, failed to properly investigate allegations of abuse and neglect, and took too long to fill prescriptions. The audit also identified inadequate staffing levels.

State Rep. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, thinks the state workers should come back.

"If we have jobs that are worth investing time and effort to develop a career around, then it makes a lot more sense that we are going to get good caregivers committed to the guys here," Brinks said. "The guys have said to me on many occasions, 'Look, not all the government workers were good, but they showed up and they knew what they were doing.'

"What I think is most disturbing is we are persistently still hearing these problems. We're not saving money. Even if we are, at what cost? Is it really worth it if we have veterans going through (what we're hearing today)?"

The state has cleaned house in administration of the Grand Rapids Home, and lawmakers last week passed a bill to create a veterans' ombudsman office to independently investigate concerns raised by residents of Michigan's two veterans homes. More state funding also is on the way, said James Redford, interim director of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency that oversees the Grand Rapids Home.

"It's going to allow us to be more competitive in the marketplace. It's going to allow us to pay more," Redford said. "I think with the right people it can work. The source of who the paycheck is is not as important as the desire to serve those who have served us. We need to make sure that our teammates have that same passion and commitment to taking the best possible care of our veterans."

Matt Vande Bunte writes about government and other issues on MLive. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.