Minneapolis vets home turns a corner

  • Article by: WARREN WOLFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 14, 2010 - 11:28 PM

After years of turmoil and dozens of violations related to care, the Minneapolis Veterans Home seems to be back on track with reports of improvements.

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World War II veteran Armin Fiemeyer, 88, spoke with Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who visited the Minneapolis Veterans Home on Thursday and praised its progress in an address to about 200 people. Two state reports say the home has made improvements in resident care and financial oversight.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Life has turned around at the long-troubled Minneapolis Veterans Home.

After decades of poor leadership, poor care and mistakes that led to state and federal investigations and at least a handful of deaths, the signs of change are strong.

A new Legislative Auditor's financial report says the 112-year-old nursing home has cleaned up some of its sloppy accounting. A Health Department annual inspection report due in a few days will say that care is far better than a few years ago, when the home racked up 99 citations between 2005 and 2008.

On Thursday morning, Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- who three years ago changed governance at the sprawling state-owned facility -- confirmed the vast improvement during a visit to the home of about 340 veterans and their spouses.

"I'm really proud of the turnaround at the Veterans Home," Pawlenty said after addressing about 200 residents, staff and family members. "There has been significant reform with new leadership, new systems, new accountability. It's not perfect, but it's headed in the right direction."

Outside, earth movers were starting work on a new nursing home that in two years will replace a Depression-era building condemned after steel supports began rusting away.

Pawlenty's assessment echoed the views of top officials in the state Department of Veterans Affairs, which has operated the Minneapolis home and four others since late 2007 -- and the Office of Ombudsman for Long-Term Care, which has been a critic when things went wrong.

Still some issues

"There is no question, conditions are much better," said Deb Holtz, who heads the ombudsman office and stationed a staff member at the home for two years.

"There are still some issues. They're talking about 'person-centered care,' where you provide care based on the resident's lifestyle and choices, not the staff's needs. So far, that hasn't taken root," she said. "But overall, things have improved pretty dramatically since Gil Acevedo arrived."

Acevedo, Veterans Affairs deputy commissioner, was hired in January 2008, shortly after the governor fired the volunteer board he had appointed to operate the veterans homes and turned over governance to the department.

Many observers credit Acevedo with ending the ineffectual and flailing response by the home to a series of bad-news reports and inspections, and getting staff and management to focus on rebuilding and retraining.

"The governor has been a very powerful advocate for us, and so has Gil Acevedo," said Kirk Larson, president of the Family Council at the home. "Gil listens very carefully. He doesn't micromanage, but you know he's paying attention."

Many of the Minneapolis home's financial issues, detailed two years ago by the Legislative Auditor, have been resolved, according to a new audit made public Thursday.

The home "generally has adequate internal controls ... but continued to have some weaknesses," the report said. Of special concern is "a substantial risk that the home may not be able to sustain the improvements it has made unless it is able to maintain consistent administrative leadership and its business office is fully staffed."

Acevedo said he generally agrees with the report. Over the past five years the home has had more than half-dozen permanent or interim administrators and now is seeking a new one.

"Sometimes leadership change is necessary to make progress," said Acevedo, who maintains an office at the Minneapolis home and in St. Paul.

Decades of problems

Begun in 1887 for Civil War veterans, the home is sandwiched between the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Creek. It was a retirement home for the elderly until the 1968, when it was licensed as a nursing home. Even before, however, city building inspectors cited the home for cleanliness and health issues. Seeking better management, the Legislature in 1975 turned the home over to the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

In 1988, after a series of resident deaths from neglect and poor care and scathing Health Department inspection reports, the Legislature and Gov. Rudy Perpich stripped the home from the department, beefed up its budget and staffing, and turned it over to a new governor-appointed board. By then, a veterans home in Hastings had been added. Later, homes were established in Luverne, Fergus Falls and Silver Bay.

By 2005, problems again were roiling through the Minneapolis home. Startling inspection reports detailed abusive and demeaning treatment and medical errors that led to illness or even death.

The problems grew so acute that the state put monitors in the home for months and required it to spend about $2 million on consultants. After a series of testy legislative hearings and on the recommendation of a commission he appointed, Pawlenty returned supervision to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The new Health Department inspection will show some "rule infractions, but generally is a far better report" than in previous years, said Darcy Miner, who heads the department's inspections.

Acevedo and his boss, Veterans Affairs Commissioner Michael Pugliese, acknowledge that the Minneapolis home has pulled out of slumps in past years, only to fail again, a process state regulators call "yo-yo compliance" with rules.

"We can't get complacent. We're not where we need to be yet," Pugliese said. "We have to stay on task."

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253

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