Inquiries, suspicious deaths indicate problems at the Minneapolis facility persist
On an imposing bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the Minneapolis Veterans Home sprawls on a 53-acre campus. Several hundred elderly warriors, many with chronic illnesses or injuries from their military service, spend their final days under supervised care of the state of Minnesota. A slogan of the home is “Serving Those Who Proudly Served.”
That care is under new scrutiny amid signs that problems that plagued the home for decades — incidents that at one point prompted a federal investigation — are persisting.
In the past three years, state records show, the veterans home has been the subject of 11 state health department investigations, including four suspicious deaths.
Families often are unaware that their loved ones’ care is under investigation, and advocates say prohibitive state laws and policies that lack transparency make it difficult to get clear, full answers to problems.
Amid it all, a citizens advisory council formed to keep the home out of regulatory hot water quietly went out of business in June. It is to be replaced by a task force that reports directly to the Veterans Affairs commissioner.
“People just aren’t doing their jobs out there. They got lax,” said Jim Bain, whose brother, Jerry, died of a drug overdose last year at the Minneapolis home. “Things need to change and no one seems to be watching them.”
The Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, which administers all five state veterans homes, says it has made continual improvements in how the home operates. In all the suspicious incidents, it has revised policies or instituted retraining where appropriate. It also has embarked on an aggressive building campaign and will be seeking $18.9 million in state money to demolish and rebuild a wing of one building on its campus.
“We strive to provide excellent care, and I advocate that we are fortunate here in the Minnesota Veterans Homes system because we have a highly dedicated and caring medical team — of which I am extremely proud,” said VA Commissioner Larry Shellito.
Gov. Mark Dayton, asked if he has concerns about the vets home, said he had confidence in Shellito’s leadership.
Concerned about what he called “significant and persistent problems at the Minneapolis home,” Jim Nobles, the state’s legislative auditor, has been critical of how the home operates. He has suggested that the state VA should not be in the nursing home business.
“At times, I even questioned whether the state was capable of adequately managing the facility,” Nobles said.
A problematic history
With 300 beds and a waiting list of 700, the Minneapolis Veterans Home is the largest of the five veterans homes operated by the state of Minnesota. It is also by far the most problematic.
The home racked up 99 citations from the Minnesota Department of Health between 2005 and 2008. The U.S. Justice Department was called in to investigate civil rights violations of patients but eventually cleared the home. After three years of intense state scrutiny and more than $800,000 paid to state-ordered consultants at the Minneapolis home, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty dissolved the State Veterans Board and put the Department of Veterans Affairs back in charge, appointing an independent citizen council to monitor how the homes were run.
Residents like 93-year-old Herb Gager, a Marine Corps veteran and Purple Heart recipient, have nothing but good things to say about their experience. A 10-year resident, Gager lives in a cheery room with an impressive view of the Mississippi River. He has written a book, “Willing Warriors,” profiling some of his fellow residents.
“I came to die but they keep patching me up,” he said.
But four deaths in the past three years at the Minneapolis home have prompted investigations by the state Health Department’s Office of Health Facility Complaints, which handles complaints at the state’s more than 2,000 licensed health care businesses, including the veterans homes.
In April, the home was cited for neglect in the death of Gerald Bain. Bain, a 61-year-old Vietnam-era Air Force veteran, had obtained illicit doses of methadone last year at the home and died of an overdose. An autopsy found that he died of acute methadone toxicity. The state investigation found that staff members failed to monitor Bain’s pain management in a unit where veterans often have addictions.
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