The Justice Department wants to know if residents' civil rights were violated as a result of improper care at the Minneapolis Veterans Home.
In an unprecedented move, the federal Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into medical care at the troubled Minneapolis Veterans Home, state officials said Tuesday.
"Essentially, they want to know if the civil rights of the residents might have been violated by not getting the care they should have," said Gil Acevedo, deputy commissioner at the state Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates the home.
"We're taking this seriously -- although this investigation might have made more sense a year or so ago, when the home had more problems. But we're cooperating as well as we can," Acevedo said. State officials said they are not aware of any similar federal investigation in Minnesota in the past.
The Justice Department could find that past problems have been corrected, order the home to make changes in how care is delivered or fine the state, Acevedo said.
State officials have known for more than a year that the Justice Department was looking at the home, and for two months that the investigation had begun.
The issue was not made public until Tuesday, when Acevedo informed members of the new governor-appointed Veterans Health Care Advisory Council.
Dispute over records
The Justice Department has asked for medical records of all residents of the home for the past two years -- as many as 500 veterans or their spouses. The home has 337 residents.
But the state has refused to supply them because the information is private under Minnesota law. Instead, the state employees are going through the medical records and taking out identifying information.
"If [federal investigators] don't accept that, they will have to go to federal court and ask the court to order us to turn over the information," said Dennis Devereaux, an attorney for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Justice Department investigators were to begin an inspection at the Minneapolis campus on Thursday, but delayed their visit because of the dispute over the medical records.
Devereaux said the state has prepared a mass of public data about residents, such as the number of falls, injuries and deaths since 2006. That information will go to federal investigators with the redacted medical records, perhaps on Saturday.
Cause of probe unclear
The Justice Department Tuesday confirmed that it has opened the investigation but offered no other comment, including why it was begun.
The investigation is being led by the Special Investigations Section of the Justice Department under its Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act staff. Most of the investigations involve jails, prisons and other institutions, but rarely nursing homes.
Earlier this year, the department cited the state of Tennessee for improper care at two veterans homes. In that case, it ordered changes in care because of "dangerously inadequate medical and nursing care" that resulted in preventable injuries and deaths.
In this case, state officials said the Justice Department may have launched the investigation because of a complaint by a member of Congress or the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, with which the state helps fund the veterans home, or because of news reports and state inspections.
Since 2005, the Minneapolis home has battled a wide range of care and regulatory problems, accumulating 66 state rule violations, $42,300 in fines and state orders to hire both a consultant and a monitor to keep watch.
Among the violations were medical errors associated with the deaths of three residents, though the state stopped short of saying the errors caused the deaths.
Last year Gov. Tim Pawlenty transferred governance of the state's five veterans homes from an independent board to the Veterans Affairs Department.
Minnesota's top nursing home regulator expressed surprise Tuesday over the timing of the Justice Department investigation.
"It doesn't make sense to me to have this occurring now. A year or two ago we might have welcomed the extra help, but why now, when conditions appear to have improved quite a bit?" said Darcy Miner, director of compliance monitoring for the Health Department.
"I don't want to minimize the vigilance that we still maintain over the home, but the home feels it's been working hard and making progress, and that's supported by what our monitor told me last week," Miner said.
Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253