The Wisconsin’s Veterans Affairs secretary took the hot seat at the State Capital on Tuesday. He updated lawmakers on conditions at the Veterans Home in King, after an audit found widespread nursing shortages and worker dissatisfaction there.
Some legislators are concerned that patient care at the nursing home could be threatened. The VA Secretary promised his department is working aggressively to tackle the problems.
The Wisconsin Veterans Home at King is about 40 miles northwest of Oshkosh. It's a long-term nursing home and rehab facility, providing care to nearly 700 veterans and spouses each day. The Legislative Audit Committee ordered an evaluation of operations, in the wake of reports about problems at King, including medical errors and food safety violations.
The Legislative Audit Bureau released findings in August. The report raised concerns about employment issues at the facility -- and how they may affect patient care. For instance -- significant nursing shortages, which have led to a dramatic increase in overtime and complaints from workers. State Veterans Affairs Secretary Daniel Zimmerman acknowledged the deficiencies at the audit committee meeting Tuesday.
“Clearly the largest personnel related challenge facing King is the industry-wide shortage of nursing staff, specifically certified nursing assistants. It has caused overtime hours work to significantly increase over the past few years. This has placed an unsustainable burden on the employees as well as the department budget,” Zimmerman says.
Zimmerman then outlined steps he says the department is taking to solve the problem. “Such as protecting new hires from mandatory overtime, increasing the number of weekends off for certified nursing assistants,” Zimmerman says.
Zimmerman says his goal is to slash overtime without compromising patient care at the nursing home and rehab facility. While some lawmakers on the audit committee found the number of overtime hours alarming, others were concerned about a decline in enthusiasm among the staff. According to the audit, 75 percent of workers describe morale as “poor.” Democratic state Rep. Melissa Sargent says she fears quality of care will suffer, if employees don’t like their jobs.
“In order to be able to solve these problems and make sure we’re providing the highest level of care for our heroes, our veterans, I think we need to make a concerted effort to address this 75 percent of poor and very poor morale,” Sargent says.
Meanwhile, Republican Rep. John Nygren warned if the department doesn’t address morale soon, it could plunge even further.
“My fear is if we don’t take that seriously and the next audit looks at satisfaction from the members again, we might see a decline and that’s something none of us want,” Nygren says.
Zimmerman acknowledged that there are a number of disgruntled workers at King, and says he’s spoken with employees in an effort to identify the cause. And while he says there’s room for improvement, he argues that overall, the quality of care and retention numbers at the facility are above average.
“The Legislative Audit Bureau confirmed that King’s per patient contact hours exceeded both state and federal standards. It also confirmed that the retention of experienced nurses at King exceeds local and state averages over time despite the statewide and national crisis afflicting the industry,” Zimmerman says.
While the committee didn’t take action on Tuesday, some lawmakers continued to express their concerns about King after the meeting adjourned. Several Democrats released statements, saying Zimmerman failed to directly answer questions about the problems at the facility, or how he's solving them. The Department of Veterans Affairs is due to give the audit committee another status report early next year.