Sen. Olsen requests an audit
By Robert Cloud
The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs transferred $12 million from the state’s veterans homes to the Veterans Trust Fund this year.
Gov. Scott Walker plans to transfer an additional $18.5 million from veterans homes’ operating revenues to the trust fund over the next two years, according to an Aug. 19 memo from the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB).
At the same time, new reports of staff shortages and complaints about conditions at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King are surfacing.
“It looks like the veterans home is profitable and they are trying to use that money in other areas,” said Waupaca Mayor Brian Smith, who is challenging incumbent Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, in state Senate District 14.
“I think raiding the veterans home for funds is wrong,” Smith said. “The state is already spending a lot less money for our veterans.”
Wisconsin’s Veterans Trust Fund provides grants and supports veterans’ services other than the state’s veterans homes. For the past three years, the VTF has spent nearly $14 million annually.
Through much of its history, the VTF was funded in large part by the interest earned on mortgages and home-repair loans to veterans.
“However, those payments have declined substantially in recent years as outstanding mortgage loan principal has declined,” according to a January 2015 report by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. “Loan principal repayments to the trust fund averaged $9.7 million annually between 2005-06 through 2009-10, but had declined to just $1.9 million in 2013-14.”
In addition to the transfers from the veterans homes, the Walker administration transferred $5 million from the general fund in 2011-12 and $5.3 million in 2013-14.
The VTF ended the 2013-14 fiscal year with a $13 million cash balance.
The fund ended the 2015-16 fiscal year with a $5.4 million cash balance.
According to the LFB, the fund is projected to end the next two years with a zero cash balance. That’s after transferring $18.5 million from the veterans homes to the fund.
The 2011-13 state budget authorized the Department of Veterans Affairs to transfer funds from veterans homes to the VTF with the approval of the Joint Finance Committee.
In the 2013-15 budget, the state Legislature made that authority permanent. When Walker signed the bill, he used a line-item veto to remove the requirement that the DAV receive the Finance Committee’s approval prior to the transfer.
State Sen. Olsen is a member of the Joint Finance Committee.
When asked about transferring funds from veterans homes to the Veterans Trust Fund, Olsen said, “It’s been going on for a number of years. It didn’t start under Gov. Walker.”
While Jim Doyle was governor, the state transferred money from the veterans homes to the Veterans Trust Fund two times. In the 2006-07 budget, $1.1 million was transferred, and $7 million was transferred in 2008-09.
“It’s alright if you make sure there’s plenty of money to take care of the veterans,” Olsen said. “If you’re taking money and there is an issue that money would solve, then it’s not the right thing.”
Olsen requested an audit of the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King on Aug. 24.
The audit request was sent to the co-chairs of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. It specifically asks the Legislative Audit Bureau to look at finances, staffing levels, family and staff satisfaction, reports brought to King’s ombudsman and condition of the facility.
“For a number of years, I’ve heard from staff and former staff about the labor shortage. We put more funding into hiring and training more staff and thought we were solving the issues,” Olsen said.
Olsen noted residents are now entering the state’s veterans homes with more critical mental and physical health problems. Consequently, the facilities need a higher level of trained staff to provide care.
“Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard concerns with the care that members are receiving at King, especially as there have been an increase in the amount of veterans that have been admitted with more acute medical, mental health and behavioral care needs,” he added.
Olsen attributed the staffing shortage at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King to the facility’s location in a rural area, where there are fewer people who have been trained as certified or licensed nurses.
“We have these open positions, people apply but they can’t pass the drug tests or the background checks,” Olsen said.
Smith offered a different explanation for the difficulty in finding qualified staff for the veterans home.
“Following Act 10, the people who could retire, did because they were losing benefits,” Smith said about the law that ended state employees’ rights to bargain collectively over wages and benefits.
“It’s difficult to find LPNs and CNs when they’re forced to work so much overtime,” Smith said. “When your child has a recital or a ball game, you want to be able to attend those without being forced to work an extra shift.”
Smith said raiding funds from veterans homes is a symptom of larger problems with the state budget.
“It’s scary that the state is taking money out of the veterans home, reducing money for public schools and has less money for transportation,” Smith said. “While the average middle class individual has seen very little reduction in property taxes or income taxes, the state’s largest businesses and wealthiest individuals have received millions of dollars in tax breaks or subsidies.”
Smith also questioned the timing of Olsen’s request for an audit.
“Luther Olsen has known about this problem since 2012, but he hasn’t done anything about it until the news came out,” Smith said. “This should have been requested a long time ago when he first heard about it.”
On Monday, Aug. 29, the Madison Capital Times published an article detailing the conditions at the Wisconsin Veterans Home in King.
The Capital Times reported urine-soaked carpets, disabled residents who are bathed only once per week, mold on the walls, outdated medical equipment and residents being cleaned with dirty washcloths placed in the drain of a soiled sink.
Most of those interviewed for the article, including both residents and staff, remained anonymous because they feared retribution.
At the same time, the veterans homes in Wisconsin have been profitable.
Combined revenues exceeded annual expenditures by $11 million in 2010-11, $12 million in 2011-12, $2 million in 2012-13, and $12 million in 2013-14, according to the January 2015 report by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
“I am glad to see the problems at King finally come to light,” said Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point. “I have been hearing from veterans and their families about the conditions at King, but my attempts to get the Walker administration and the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to take action were met with denials and excuses.”
Lassa said she requested an audit of King in March 2015, contacted the Wisconsin DVA, the Division of Quality Assurance at the Department of Health Services and spoke with the governor. She said no one responded to her concerns until it became known that the Capital Times was investigating the issue.
“The facts clearly show that Governor Walker, WDVA Secretary John Scocos, and Republicans in the Legislature used the veterans’ homes as a cash cow while they let our veterans suffer with substandard care. Their mismanagement of the veterans’ homes is simply shameful,” Lassa said.