Michigan veterans affairs chief replaced after audit

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Grand Rapids — Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday replaced the director of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, citing a “deeply troubling” audit that uncovered problems at a state-run nursing home for veterans in Grand Rapids.

Snyder requested the resignation of Jeff Barnes, who led the agency for three years but had no medical facility experience before his appointment in 2013. He will be reassigned.

James Redford, Snyder’s chief legal counsel and a former judge, will serve as interim director of the agency. He served in the Navy as part of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

The Michigan Office of the Auditor General released a scathing report Friday, concluding that the veterans affairs agency didn’t ensure sufficient care services at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, a partially privatized facility where a combination of state and contract workers care for more than 430 residents.

The home failed to properly investigate allegations of neglect and abuse, and it did not properly administer prescription medications, according to the audit. The private contractor hired to provide residential care aides failed to adequately staff the home, and workers compromised residents’ safety by failing to conduct required location and alarm checks.

Major General Gregory J. Vadnais, director of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, called the audit “disappointing” and “embarrassing” and vowed improvements.

“Bottom line, up front, I want to apologize … to our veterans, to the people who are living in this home,” Vadnais said during a Friday press conference at the Grand Rapids facility. “That’s not up to the standards I expect or that any of us are trying to achieve.”

Leslie Shanlian, appointed in October as CEO of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, said the state is already correcting issues identified in the audit. She said a new policy requires the home to respond to all resident complaints within 72 hours and within 24 hours for allegations of abuse and neglect.

The audit revealed that the home responded to one in four resident complaints within a required 10-day window, taking an average of seven extra days. Complaints also were regularly mishandled. All 91 complaints reviewed by auditor, including 38 allegations of neglect and abuse, were forwarded to the manager of the department in question, “thus severely compromising the controls inherent with an effective complaint process.”

Neglect and abuse complaints were not properly forwarded to or investigated by the director of nursing at the home, as required under policy.

J2S Group Healthforce of Grand Rapids, a private firm hired by the state, failed to meet required staffing levels “on a routine basis,” according to the audit, which showed the veterans agency has filed four performance complaints against J2S between March 2014 and October of 2015.

Contract workers also failed to conduct required location and fall alarm checks designed to ensure the safety of residents, but they nonetheless reported that the checks had occurred.

The falsified documents were certified by supervisors, but auditors used surveillance footage to poke holes in the official record. Asked if any employees were fired, Shanlian said the director of nursing “dealt with them appropriately” at the time.

Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature opted to partially contract out services at the facility in 2011, a move that was projected to save the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs $4.2 million a year. A court battle delayed the switch until 2013, when roughly 180 state workers were laid off.

The state’s initial relationship with J2S was “strained” during the prolonged transition, said Jim Dunn, deputy director of the veterans affairs agency.

“We’ve taken actions over the years to try to make it better,” he said. “It doesn’t excuse the fact that the contractor hasn’t performed and provided the number of people required by the contract.”

Dunn said the state has changed the contract with J2S at least four times and is negotiating another modification to give workers a performance-pay bonus if the company meets staffing goals. The state is still saving “considerable funds” despite the contract changes, he said.

Sens. Margaret O’Brien and Peter MacGregor, Republicans from Portage and Rockford, on Thursday said they planned to hold investigative hearings on “a troubling pattern of mismanagement and neglect” at the Grand Rapids veterans home.

Sen. David Knezek, a Marine Corps veteran and vice chairman of the Military, Veterans and Homeland Security Committee, on Friday welcomed Barnes’ resignation but said “his departure alone won’t help our veterans obtain the care they deserve.”

“It is still on us to figure out where the real problems exist and to develop an aggressive plan to fix them,” Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, said in a statement. “Investigative hearings, with subpoena power, must be a part of this process, but will not be the total solution.”

State Rep. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, said the leadership changes announced Friday are an important step in the right direction for the home, and she called Redford “a good choice” to take over the state agency.

But Brinks, who visited the home Friday and said she has heard complaints about the level of care since she took office in 2013, said the state should consider returning to a public workforce at the home.

“One thing I know for sure is that J2S needs to be fired,” Brinks said, adding that most complaints about the home involved “inadequate staffing, poorly trained staffing and folks not even showing up because they’re paid so little.”

The state’s contract with J2S expires at the end of September, when officials have said they could consider another vendor.