Two top officials in the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs lost their jobs days before a Minnesota Senate committee holds a hearing about allegations that a toxic workplace environment has hurt veterans' care at the Hastings Veterans Home for years.
The informational hearing Tuesday, where the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs will answer questions about the Hastings home, comes after the officials — Doug Hughes, the department's deputy commissioner, and Mike Anderson, administrator of the Hastings facility — were relieved of their duties. Their last day was Saturday.
"I am aware of ongoing issues that have been raised at the Hastings Veterans Home," Larry Herke, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, wrote in a staff-wide email sent Sunday. "We will be moving forward with new leadership at the Hastings Veterans Home, and we are looking forward to continuing to make positive changes in the service of our Veterans."
Senate State and Local Government and Veterans Committee Chair Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said her panel first started hearing in January about waiting lists for veterans to get into homes during a field hearing at the Minneapolis facility. Then she said information started to trickle in about a "series of issues" in Hastings.
When the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported the numerous whistleblower allegations earlier this month, Murphy said she knew it was time for a hearing. "We are doing our due diligence as the committee of record that has responsibility for funding and oversight and the care at our veterans' homes," she said.
Murphy, a registered nurse, said the plan is "to understand what's transpired and where the committee and others want to go."
The veterans home in Hastings is not a nursing home. The 145-bed facility's domiciliary program provides an independent living environment for veterans from all military branches who need assistance with mental health, chemical dependency issues and financial or social well-being.
The complaints allege the home's environment took what naturally was a difficult time — the COVID-19 pandemic that brought lockdowns and mental health struggles — and made it significantly worse.
More than 20 of the facility's fewer than 100 employees have left in the past year and a half, one former supervisor said, pointing out the facility has been operating without a nurse practitioner since the previous one left.
"The allegations involved in the complaint led me to believe there were some very serious issues, and part of that was the volume of people stepping forward," said Rep. Shane Hudella, a Minnesota National Guard veteran and Republican from Hastings who represents the district with the veterans home. "This wasn't one disgruntled former employee. This was a big group of folks having the courage to step forward."
"It was a matter of putting a lot of work on people that shouldn't be doing it, and transferring work to other people who shouldn't be doing it, and then throwing people under the bus when they did something wrong — when it wasn't something they should have been doing in the first place," said Tori Pearce, an Air Force veteran who was director of nursing at the Hastings facility until she left in September 2021. "I want to feel these homes are ready for what special-needs veterans will need in the future."
State veterans groups have expressed outrage that this work environment could have led to subpar care for some of the state's most vulnerable veterans.
Trent Dilks, the legislative director for Disabled American Veterans of Minnesota who served two tours in Iraq, said the most pressing concerns at the Hastings home involved non-medical administrators overruling medical professionals in caring for veterans.
"'Toxic workplace environment' is such a broad phrase — it could mean something different to you than it does to me," Dilks said. "But what we really wanted clarification on is whether it's happening that non-medical administrators are overriding medical professionals."
The committee will hold its informational hearing Tuesday at 5:30 p.m., when it will take testimony and ask questions of Herke, staff at the home and more.
"We need to make sure we're doing our very best job of settling a standard of care and funding it for our treasured veterans," Murphy said.