Investigation under way at vets home
Three administrators at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Hastings are on paid leave during an investigation about fears of retaliation at the home.
Over the summer, during a survey at the home, residents spoke up to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs about the concerns.
That prompted the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs to begin its own investigation of the matter, leading to the paid leave of the administrators.
On leave are the homes administrator, Chip Cox, the director of nursing, Connie Ball, and one of Cox's aides. All three are being paid and are on leave until the investigation concludes.
Gilbert Acevedo, the deputy commissioner for veterans health care, is leading the investigation.
"We don't have a timeline for when it is going to be completed, but we're hopeful we'll complete it in relatively short order," he said.
The three have been placed on leave so that the residents and staff members who are interviewed feel as comfortable as possible talking with investigators, Acevedo said.
Acevedo said that while the investigation is ongoing, he's also hearing from many residents who are happy with their care at the home. He's spoken to many of them first-hand.
"They feel that they are being treated fairly," he said. "They feel that the care is good. This whole thing is unfortunate. As a department, we have to look at all the allegations and make sure that if there is something there, we need to respond to it quickly."
Acevedo stressed that the concerns are being taken seriously but that, overall, the home is doing its job.
"All of this now has taken hold, and it is giving the appearance that this is happening across the board with all the residents," Acevedo said. "Right now, it's unfortunate for the other residents. They're angry. They're anxious. They don't like the way they're being perceived or presented by the media. They're only listening to a handful of residents, including some who are no longer at the home."
Ken Larson has lived at the home for five years. His situation is unique, he said, in that he doesn't spend much time there during the day. He sleeps there every night, has breakfast in the morning then heads out for the day. He returns in the evening for dinner.
"It's an unfortunate set of circumstances," Larson said. "On one hand, I have empathy for those who have fallen into unfortunate circumstances. On the other hand, I have empathy for the management and staff that is doing the best they can under the system.
Larson said he's never lived in fear of retaliation at the home.
"I don't, but I'm not there all the time," he said. "I'm not in the circumstances that some of those people find themselves in."
Approximately 170 veterans live at the home, located on 18th Street near the Vermillion River.
"The staff at all five homes and the department really does care about the care of the residents," Acevedo said. "We want to do what's right for all of our residents across the board."
One of the whistleblowers in the case was Louie Klimek, who no longer lives at the home.
Klimek said that after there were cuts made in the work therapy program at the home, he began to speak up at public meetings. Then, he said, the dosage on his medication was changed without his knowledge. He said he believes the change was made to his medication to keep him quiet.
"It pretty much put me into neutral," he said. "There were no ups and downs. No happy. No sad. Nothing. They wanted to stabilize me. They said I was being manic even though I wasn't.
"I don't have a clue as to why they did that to me. I was just asking too many questions. I imagine I was becoming a pain in their butt."
For Klimek, the serious problems began during an interview with the Hastings Star Gazette in February 2009. Staff writer Keith Grauman went to the home to interview Klimek, who had taken up woodworking as a hobby. By the end of the interview, Klimek was being led out of the facility by police officers. Klimek has recounted the scenario to a number of Twin Cities media outlets. His story was confirmed by Grauman, who no longer works at the Star Gazette.
"It definitely happened," Grauman said. "We started doing the interview in one of the more open, public areas in the vets home. Then we went up to his room so he could show me some of the frames he had made. We were up there for a while, maybe a half-hour.
"(The conversation) was definitely focused on the woodworking. Then there was a knock on the door and it was Chip Cox. Right away, I got a feeling that he was suspicious, or that he was coming to sort of check in on what was going on with the interview. He just seemed very suspicious, I guess. It was really awkward.
"He just stayed in the room for a while, while we were talking about woodworking.
"He left and came back with (Hastings) police officers. Then he said that Louie had an appointment."
Grauman said Klimek said he didn't have an appointment and that he wasn't aware of any such appointment. Klimek went with the officers and Cox. Grauman followed behind and saw paramedics waiting for Klimek.
Klimek said he was committed that day and spent a few weeks at Regions Hospital before he was allowed to come back to the home. He was committed a second time, he said. He was eventually kicked out of the facility and sent to Little Falls.
Ginny Sieben is a veteran, a former nurse and a former attorney who lives in Hastings. She has known Klimek for years and listened to him as he told her about his medication being changed. She saw him in a weekly basis and noticed "significant changes" in his behavior as his medications were being changed, she said.
"They were trying to get him to be quiet," she said. "I just found it so hard to believe that they would be monkeying around with his medication. When I first heard this stuff from Louie, something just didn't add up. It wasn't Louie that didn't add up."
A number of residents called State Senator Katie Sieben, asking her for a closed-door meeting so that they could outline some of their concerns. Ginny Sieben's husband, Harry, is Senator Sieben's uncle. Senator Sieben called Ginny Sieben and asked her to sit in on the meeting, which she did.
Ginny Sieben said that between 15 and 20 veterans spoke with Sieben and an ombudsman for the state about their concerns. They said they felt like they were not being listened to, that they were having their medications changed and that their care was being cut off. The grievance process wasn't working, they said, so they sought out Senator Sieben.
Ginny Sieben and her husband later met with another group of veterans who had some of the same concerns.
"We just started documenting what these different problems were," she said.
In October 2009, Ginny Sieben wrote a 3,300-word letter to Senator Al Franken outlining the concerns.
"The home wasn't getting it fixed," Sieben said.
On July 29, 2010, a for-cause survey was completed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. That survey found the home met 69 standards out of a possible 72.
The other three were provisionally met, meaning that the home would have to correct its actions. One area that was provisionally met had to do with ongoing staff development. A plan was put into action to remedy that problem. The other two areas are what is attracting so much attention.
One is on the quality of life at the home.
"Based on observation, interview and record review, the facility did not provide residents a homelike environment to help promote personal growth and independence ..." the report reads.
According to the report, 15 of 22 sampled residents said the facility's physician (who is not named in the report and who no longer works at the facility) did not have a caring attitude. Thirteen of the 22 sampled residents said that they were concerned about retaliation from Ball and the physician if they "questioned their care or ask for specific services."
According to the report, Ball said that there "was confusion on self-medication issues" and that the "facility needs to provide more education" for its residents.
The third area of concern was related to whether or not the facility has a "homelike environment."