Hastings Veterans Home Hearing

Veterans look on as Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs Commissioner Larry Herke testifies to the State Senate regarding allegations of a "toxic work environment" at the Hastings Veterans Home on March 20.

Mired in allegations from former and current employees claiming a “toxic work environment,” upper-level management at the Hastings Veterans Home has had to answer questions about the conduct at the domiciliary.

In letters to the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs (MDVA) and state media outlets, the whistleblowers painted a picture of an inept management structure that rules through intimidation. They accused the Hastings Veterans Home of employing a lean, ill-equipped staff that contributed to intense burnout and shortcomings in caregiving services, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the wake of these revelations, MDVA Commissioner Larry Herke “decided to go in a different direction as it relates to the home’s leadership.” Deputy Commissioner Doug Hughes and Administrator Mike Anderson of the Hastings Veterans Home were officially dismissed on March 18. 

To try and unearth the systems and players at fault, the Minnesota Senate’s State and Local Government and Veterans Committee held an informational hearing on March 20 in the senate building. 

MDVA Commissioner Larry Herke and former employees shared testimonies regarding the conditions at the home. Speaking first, Herke gave a synopsis of the issues, as MDVA sees them, and what steps they are taking to rectify them. 

Herke said that he wasn’t aware of the souring work environment until he received a packet containing the grievances against senior management in July of 2022. The documents he received originated from four current employees, six former employees, and five anonymous sources. Some of them were dated, Herke said, but he maintained that MDVA “took them all seriously.”

Since then, Herke said that MDVA has been firmly committed to instituting a collaborative work environment and has been in the process of enacting a 10-point plan to do so. Much of this plan is targeted towards bolstering diversity, equity and inclusion, updating clinical and behavioral training for all staff, as well as revamping the avenues for reporting performance reviews. 

As it stands now, Herke told the senate committee that the 10-point plan is 60 percent complete, and that the outstanding items are being scheduled for completion or are already in progress. This optimistic status report didn’t resonate with former Hastings Veterans Home employee Lynn Wachtler, who followed up Herke with a scathing testimony.  

Wachtler was separated from state service with the Hastings Veterans Home in October of 2022 and said that she left in duress. A former advanced registered nurse practitioner at the domiciliary, Wacthler holds national certification as a family nurse practitioner and has 34 years of experience as a nurse and 25 as a nurse practitioner. 

She said that when she joined the Hastings Veterans Home staff in 2015 it was a “highly-functioning team of practitioners.” However, what synergy existed upon her arrival evaporated quickly and devolved into chaos, Wachtler went on to explain.

“Since 2016 under the initial leadership, there where were significant cuts in key positions which ultimately created an extremely lean workforce without systems or processes in place to mitigate these changes,” Wacthler said

In late-fall of 2015, crucial caretakers, the home’s designated MD, a full-time nurse practitioner and a half-time nurse practitioner, had left under duress, according to Wachtler. Cracks in the Hastings Veterans Home’s staff and caretaking systems didn’t end there though.

“Our best systems and processed thinkers and builders, who specialized in education, infection prevention and informatics, to name just a few, left under duress. Our mental health services were also gutted with the departure of our staff psychologist and behavioral analyst,” Wachtler said. 

Worried about the substantial cuts, Wachtler compiled data from a handful of other healthcare systems related to appropriate caseloads and tried to show to management that the situation in Hastings was becoming untenable. Caseloads were surging, and Wachtler said she tried to voice her concerns to Hastings Veterans Home Senior Director Simone Hogan, but was stonewalled.

“As an agency leader, I felt she was dismissive and belittling. She refused to look at the spreadsheet I presented for her review and consideration,” Wachtler said.

These precarious conditions came to a head once COVID-19 upended healthcare systems everywhere. Functioning with a depleted workforce and scarce resources, Wachtler and her colleagues had to bend over backwards in order to keep providing their essential care.

Left without an infection prevention specialist, MDVA asked a quality nurse to assume the suddenly paramount position. Other roles were combined to keep the wheels turning, and the caregivers had to resort to creating their own systems on the fly to avoid sentinel events.

On top of their rising burnout levels, Wachtler and the other caregivers feared for their safety in the early-COVID days since they had to rely on shower caps, swimming goggles, personally sewed gowns and an extremely limited supply of masks. 

“We were under tremendous stress due to lack of PPE,” Wachtler said as she broke into tears.

More PPE gradually filtered in, but Wachtler said the Hastings Veterans Home didn’t provide a solution to the festering burnout issues, and the expectation was that “there was no time off.” Ultimately, the mounting pressure overcame Wachtler on-site, and she collapsed in an exam room on July 20, 2021, and left in an ambulance with a cardiac event.

Wachtler concluded her testimony by demanding that accountability standards for senior leaders rise and that a strategic, cultural change occurs from the ground up. In addition, she wants MDVA to shore up safety issues in and around the facility, improve staff ratios, invest in onboarding with clear expectations and ongoing education and bring back positions that were cut.

In his testimony, Herke shared statistics that contradicted some of the main allegations brought forth. He cited data collected from an internally-conducted survey that indicated that residents at Hastings Veterans Home were satisfied with their circumstance. 

On a 5-point scale, residents ranked the facility and its services at 4.4, a number Herke said is above the national average for similar facilities and consistent with other MDVA homes. 

“The survey included 17 quality indicators that covered everything from overall care, nursing care, quality of food, and even laundry services,” Herke said.

Herke referenced two other resident surveys, one conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health (Oct. 2022) and the other by U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (Jan. 2023), that he felt were evident of a functional staffing system. He downplayed the strain that the pandemic imposed on the staff, pointing out that the Hastings Veterans Home has done well in terms of retention.

“While staffing during the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for all healthcare providers, we have retained most of our employees throughout this period,” Herke said.

According to Herke, the Hastings Veterans Home, with 86 full-time employees, currently has a 7-percent vacancy rate, the lowest of any of the five MDVA homes in the state of Minnesota. 

While the senate committee was encouraged by the roadmap MDVA has embarked on, they were perplexed as to why elements of the plan weren’t already in place. They also expressed skepticism about whether or not this plan and the dismissal of two bad actors can actually resolve the apparent cultural issues. 

“What you described in the 10-point plan sounds like everything that should’ve been in the daily plan of the entire operations under your leadership. So I'm wondering, what changed,” Senator Mark Koran (R-District 28) said.

To this line of questioning, Herke conceded that there never should have been problems as it related to respect in the workforce. He affirmed to the committee and the Hastings Veterans Home caregivers in the audience that it is incumbent on him as the head of MDVA to hire leaders who are respectful and lead by example.

A search for a new Hastings Veterans Home administrator and deputy commissioner is in full swing, Herke said, and he intends on having the positions filled in 120 days, or “as quickly as possible.” Furthermore, Herke, along with Senator Judy Seeberger (D-District 41), are advocating for legislation that would increase funding for the Hastings Veterans Home and allow for renovations that would alleviate safety issues present at the facility.

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