Veterans care standoff brews
Mon May 21, 2007 01:13


Veterans care standoff brews

By Lisa Horn
Montgomery Advertiser

May 20, 2007

Pat Waters of Auburn and Carol Ray of Roanoke both had family members living at the Bill Nichols Veterans Home in Alexander City when USA Healthcare was operating the homes in 2002.

"The overall health care was just not there," said Waters, whose father lived at Bill Nichols for two years until he died in 2004. "We would talk to the administrator and the VA rep, and it was like USA Healthcare would not acknowledge that they were not taking care of them. They didn't try to work with the families."

Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said he is troubled by similar stories from families who have entrusted the care of an elderly loved one to the state. The Vietnam veteran said a legislative oversight committee is needed to protect those living in the state's three nursing homes for veterans.

But members of the State Board of Veterans Affairs don't want the sort of oversight they believe Alabama legislators may be trying to offer.

They believe a bill, House Joint Resolution 178, which would set up a legislative oversight committee, is actually a veiled attempt to control contracts awarded to the nursing homes. Thanks to senators holding up legislation to protest assignments and rule changes, the bill is unlikely to be passed, or even introduced in the Senate during this session.

But that doesn't keep Board of Veterans Affairs members from worrying.

They say the resolution is strikingly similar to one that set up a previous legislative oversight committee in 2004, a committee they say delayed their attempts to get better health care for veterans.

Reports of veteran neglect surfaced during the five years that the Cullman-based firm USA Healthcare operated the state's three homes. Under its management, USA Healthcare used one Cullman-based doctor to serve the needs of all three homes.

"That just wasn't enough," Ray said.

Eventually, state officials heard so many negative reports that the board decided to award the contract to Health Management Resources, a company based in Easley, S.C.

The legislative contract review committee, however, delayed the new contract for six months, saying the legality of the bidding process needed to be reviewed. Board members later found out that Frank Brown, owner of USA Healthcare, had made campaign contributions either directly or indirectly to some of the committee members holding up the new contract.

HMR has held the contract since June 2004, when Gov. Bob Riley made the agreement official.

And though her father died before HMR took control, Waters, who attends every state VA board meeting and has visited the Bill Nichols Home about four times since her father's passing, said things have changed dramatically.

"At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, I don't see eggs and grits from breakfast still on their clothes. I don't smell odors like I used to," she said. "I see patients involved in activities, their call buttons are where they can reach them."

Ray's uncle, C.J. Holder, experienced HMR's care for just two months until he died, but already Ray said she saw a difference.

"There was a better spirit with the veterans," Ray said. "The families seemed to be a lot more pleased."

Following the board's recommendation, Riley extended HMR's contract another two years on Feb. 13 of this year. The contract is large -- nearly $122 million to care for more than 400 veterans at homes in Huntsville, Alexander City and Bay Minette. Future contracts eventually will include a new home that will serve the Birmingham area within the next five years.

"(The committee) found that the bid process was absolutely in accordance with the state of Alabama," said Joe McDonald, a member of the state board of Veterans Affairs. "They wanted to rebid the contract. That was their recommendation."

Knight said he sponsored the resolution in the wake of the Walter Reed Army Hospital scandal because the oversight committee would serve as an added level of checks and balances.

"After looking at what has taken place at nursing homes and facilities for veterans, I thought that as a veteran myself ... I wanted to be assured that here in Alabama ... we make sure they (facilities) are accountable, that they are giving true, quality service to our veterans," Knight said. "They put their life on the line for this country ... we owe them."

Knight added that the resolution, which also seeks to establish a separate Veterans' Home Advisory Group, has nothing to do with contracting.

"If anybody's throwing that out, it's a smokescreen and it makes me even more concerned, I don't care who they are," said Knight. "All this is a legislative oversight committee, and we have oversight committees for many different things in the state."

That argument does not convince veterans' groups that more supervision is wanted or needed.

"I don't like the word oversight unless there's a need for it," said Ken Rollins, deputy vice chairman of the State Board of Veterans Affairs and chairman of the homes committee. "(HMR) doesn't have any political contacts to anyone in the state. I think that makes it more credible."

Currently, retired Rear Admiral W. Clyde Marsh, commissioner of the State Board of Veterans Affairs, and VA board members conduct regular inspections of the homes. Occasionally, members of veterans groups such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars have meetings at the homes as well, Rollins said.

The federal VA, separate from the Alabama VA, also conducts yearly and occasional random inspections, according to information provided by Y.C. Parris, director of the Birmingham VA Medical Center.

"We'll go for our own peace of mind and make sure everything was the way we thought it was when we (were last) there," said Parris, adding that state nursing homes generally have more oversight than private nursing homes.

Marsh, the board commissioner who was hired after HMR took control of the homes, said that while he could not comment on the intentions behind the proposed oversight committee, he welcomes legislation that supports Alabama's veterans.

"We rely on the Legislature to take care of our veterans," Marsh said. "Every year, we have to request appropriations required to operate all of our homes and our programs. We're all charged with taking care of the veterans. We can't do it independently."

Board members agreed.

"We care what you do, not what you say," said McDonald, a former Marine and long-time member of the board, who fought against the initial oversight committee. "We don't need them to look at the policies and the contracts."

Political analyst Bill Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama, said that HJR 178 appears to be a needless duplication, based on the checks already in place.

"I think it's excessive government bureaucracy," Stewart said."I think the money could be spent better elsewhere. We don't need another mini-bureaucracy, so to speak."

Board members said they want better funding to protect both the general and veterans' assistance funds and support for the construction of the new nursing home in Birmingham and future expansion projects.

"Anything else is absolutely irrelevant to us," McDonald said. "What we need (legislators) to do is to sufficiently fund us."

Representative John F. Knight, Jr.
Representative John Knight, Special Assistant to the President for Alabama State University, was elected in 1993. He was born on June 7. ...

Veterans care standoff brews
Montgomery Advertiser, AL - 21 hours ago
Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said he is troubled by similar stories from families who have entrusted the care of an elderly loved one to the state. ...

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