Schuette: Veterans home workers falsified records

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced criminal charges Monday against 11 former caregivers at the state-run Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, alleging they falsified records to cover up neglect at the facility.

Schuette’s office also investigated several complaints of alleged resident mistreatment but said there was not sufficient evidence to pursue more serious vulnerable adult abuse charges against any workers at the veterans home.

The attorney general launched the probe in May 2016 following a scathing state audit that revealed “a troubling pattern of mismanagement” at the Grand Rapids facility, which prompted a state government overhaul of how nursing care is provided to Michigan veterans.

The audit showed, among other things, that workers falsified records and skipped room checks designed to ensure the safety and health of aging residents living at the facility.

Schuette is charging 11 of those workers with intentionally or willfully violating a state law against placing misleading or inaccurate information in medical records or charts. Some of the defendants are charged with multiple counts of violating the law, which is punishable by up to four years in prison and/or a fine of up to $5,000.

“We owe our veterans a debt of gratitude for their service to our country. Allegations that our veterans are being abused or neglected runs counter to the duty we owe them. These allegations were thoroughly investigated by my office,” Schuette said in a statement.

“This announcement does not represent the end of scrutiny of the GRHV or the close of the investigation. We will continue to aggressively follow-up on any new complaints of abuse or neglect of veterans at the home.”

Charges were filed against: Tyisha Toliver, 40, of Grand Rapids; Doris Penny, 59, of Grand Rapids; Eric Anderson, 59, of Holland; Jasmine Ferrer, 27, of Wyoming; Cary Gerencer, 52, of Sand Lake; Sheryl Hillyer, 62, of Lansing; Lolitta Jackson, 39, of Grand Rapids; Emina Kahriman, 53, of Grand Rapids; Michelle Longmire, 49, of Muskegon; Roconda Singleton, 39, of Grand Rapids; and Sequoyah Thomas, 23, of Grand Rapids.

All 11 defendants had been employed by former state contractor J2S Group Healthforce of Grand Rapids, according to a Schuette representative. Michigan legislators opted to partially privatize the Grand Rapids home in 2011, a move that was projected to save the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs $4.2 million a year.

Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency Director James Robert Redford said “substantial progress” has been made since the audit was issued in February 2016.

The state has hired two new contractors to staff the facility, according to the agency, which said the home has increased staffing and instituted both member location checks and random checks of reports by each assistant director of nursing.

“The safety and well-being of all those we have the privilege of serving is of paramount concern to MVAA staff, and we are taking all possible measures to make certain we are fulfilling these responsibilities,” Redford said in a statement.

“We have put additional education and policies in place intended to correct previously identified deficiencies and to ensure we are providing the best care possible.”

Some critics have blamed problems at the home on the privatized workforce.

Democratic state legislators had first called on Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to investigate alleged abuse and neglect at the home in 2013. They’ve criticized Schuette, a Republican, for failing to act sooner and note his office also defended the state in a 2011 lawsuit seeking to stop privatization at the facility.

“Bill Schuette did absolutely nothing until apparently he wants to run for governor, and now all of a sudden he wants to grandstand on the issue,” Rep. Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said Monday.

Rep. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, said she is “incredibly frustrated” an investigation was not launched sooner but is cautiously optimistic care has improved since “much needed changes” were made at the home and the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency.

“I hope there is an ongoing and full investigation of not just the frontline employees — the caregivers — but also folks in charge at the home, all the way up through the department,” Brinks said.

As of April 2016, 408 veterans were living in the Grand Rapids facility, one of two veterans homes in the state. Roughly half were Vietnam War veterans, while others served in World War II, the Korean War, Gulf War and the Cold War era.

Legislators responded to the 2016 audit with a new set of laws creating the Michigan Veterans Facility Authority to oversee facility operations, renovations and construction. The new laws also created new triggers for state audits and require annual reporting by the Grand Rapids facility as well as the D.J. Jacobetti Home for Veterans in Marquette.

As part of the criminal investigation, Schuette’s office said it solicited reports of neglect and abuse from the public and investigated more than 35 complaints, including an alleged incident where a resident was left unattended in a court yard and later found dead “freezing … in a puddle of urine with his wheelchair tipped over.”

Investigators interviewed the man’s wife, sister and other residents and said the evidence suggests he died of a heart attack after going outdoors to smoke during the summer. He was found by staff shortly after calling for help. There was insufficient evidence to pursue any criminal charges in the death, according to a report released by Schuette’s office.

Workers’ failure to perform regular bed checks on residents, as alleged, “can result in delayed treatment of acute medical conditions, residents laying in soiled beds for prolonged periods of time, and other unacceptable and dangerous circumstances, such as residents who have fallen and sustained bone fractures and head injuries going undiscovered for hours,” according to the report.

The veterans affairs agency continues “to cooperate with the Attorney General’s Office as we have since May on any and all matters under investigation,” said spokeswoman Suzanne Thelen.