Fifteen years ago, Gerald Bilderback moved into the state-run Minnesota Veterans Home in Minneapolis. It's the kind of facility that offers the skilled nursing care needed by the blind 73-year-old Vietnam veteran who's unable to live independently due to a traumatic brain injury, according to court documents.
Bilderback is now facing eviction over unpaid bills, even though he has no control over his money. An administrative law judge recommended earlier this summer that the state Department of Veterans Affairs discharge Bilderback because of a dispute that started when his brother-in-law -- who oversees Bilderback's pensions and veterans benefits -- refused to pay $1,084 in medical expenses two years ago.
A Wisconsin court has taken steps to remove the brother-in-law, Robert Adams of Eau Claire, as Bilderback's conservator. But that follows two years of wrangling with Adams by county social workers and courts in two states, the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies, culminating in threats to send Bilderback packing.
The case could be months away from resolution, and then likely will face an appeal.
Dennis Devereaux, an attorney for the Veterans Home, said he couldn't discuss the specifics of Bilderback's case. But he said last week that the facility follows "by design a very slow and deliberate process."
"We take this very seriously," Devereaux said. "As a government agency, we're bound by a process. If we back off and say, 'This isn't worth it,' we set a bad precedent."
But Dan Steinhagen, a Minneapolis elder-law attorney who's not involved in the case and applauds the Veterans Home as a caregiver, said it sounds like a waste of resources. "There isn't a bigger bureaucracy than the VA," Steinhagen said. "Somebody should have looked at the numbers sooner and done something."
No resident has ever been discharged from the Veterans Home in Minneapolis for nonpayment, VA officials said. Yet, the agency said it is legally required to pursue that option when bills don't get paid.
The Veterans Home can't discharge any residents without a plan for where they'll go, and Adams said that if he ultimately loses the dispute, he will pay up rather than "let them toss Gerald out in the street." But Adams, 72, and a veteran himself, said he's put $29,000 of his own money into Bilderback's care. "I am not going to cave in," he said.
Gerald Bilderback is "not aware of the situation," according to his brother, Robert Bilderback, of Inver Grove Heights, and the Veterans Home wouldn't let the Star Tribune speak to him, saying state VA policy allows an interview only through agreement with the family and the Veterans Home, or if the veteran requests one.
The oldest of 10 children, Bilderback grew up in rural Durand, Wis., a stone's throw from Lake Pepin, and talked about joining the Navy when he was a child. He enlisted in the Navy at 17 and married Frances Adams before his 21st birthday. Then came Vietnam.
According to his wife, brother-in-law and brother, Bilderback was aboard the aircraft carrier, the USS Oriskany the morning of Oct. 26, 1966. A fire erupted, killing 44 men. Others were badly burned. Bilderback's lungs were damaged, his wife and brother-in-law said. The trauma of the event left deep scars.
"When he came back, he wasn't the same," Frances said.
Bilderback worked for 26 years as a Northwest Airlines mechanic, but he couldn't seem to move beyond Vietnam and the fire, his wife and brother-in-law said. Bilderback is now estranged from his wife, who says she hasn't seen him since 2002. Adams has managed his money since 1996.
Adams claims he has supplemented Bilderback's estate -- even though the Veterans Home emphasizes that all fees are to be covered by the resident's assets and income. Adams says the $1,084 medical bill was a VA "mistake." He refused to provide 2010 and 2011 financial disclosures and has made no payments to the Veterans Home on Bilderback's behalf in 19 months, court documents reveal.
"They haven't told me what I owe," Adams said. "I don't know what they want from me."
Steinhagen, the Minneapolis elder-care attorney, said bringing in a professional conservator might be the solution, "but the brother-in-law sounds like a decent person trying to wade through a lot of red tape. ...Dealing with all the form letters can get frustrating."
On June 24, Administrative Law Judge Kathleen Sheehy upheld the state's authority to discharge Bilderback. Yet he can continue living at the Veterans Home during the legal appeals. Those evicted could end up in another government facility, such as a county-run home, Devereaux said.
"The issue here is the guy with the purse strings, the brother-in-law," said Mary Hagen, a Richfield elder-law attorney who worked eight years as a nurse for the Department of Veterans Affairs. "Another conservator needed to be appointed."
Adams said he also wants this situation resolved, "but I won't allow Gerald to be a victim."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419