Saturday, July 29, 2017

The learning curve

Where to begin?

In 2010, this blog was started as a personal history of time spent at the veterans home by one of the residents whose very early life started just feet away from the veterans home.

As time went on, he started logging in the abuses he was witnessing, that were being imposed on fellow veterans thinking what he was seeing was just plain wrong. And that is how this blog page became the first outside voice for those veterans living at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans.

Some of the more vociferous veterans started becoming active in advocating for other veterans who were afraid to speak up at the home. And it has been a learning experience since then. They did not know what to do, or who to talk to. We found out.. that and more.

When it became clear that the administration was in fact, part of the problem, these veterans who had put their lives on the line for this country, started looking for other ways to get the attention of someone to help the resident veterans at the home.

The sent reports to the media who did nothing, or went to the administration to report what they had been given. The administration blew off the reports, and then retaliated against the veterans whom the reports were about.

At first the veterans felt betrayed by the media people. As this article is named, it was a learning curve. We now know that media people have special responsibilities for what they publish/report and we were not giving them enough clear information to do a proper story. We still believe that at the time, the upper management of local media did not want to be the one to create a problem they felt did not exist, out of fear of being locked out of being able to do future stories at or about the home.

And once the terrible VA Audit came out in 2015, were they covered and thus empowered to start reporting about the home.

In the years since this blog started, we have determined that the problem was with the Sara Dunne administration. We also thought there was some problem with the MVAA (Michigan Veterans Affairs agency, a department created by Governor Rick Snyder). This turned out to be bigger than we thought, and yes it too was (and still is) part of the problem. What we could not do, is connect Governor Rick Snyder directly to the problem.. but we can now, indirectly.  Again all part of the learning curve.

What we now know is that the MVAA, and the republican party all took the position that the would do what ever it took to protect the Governor Rick Snyder from being made accountable for the problems at the Veterans home. This group included people within the Attorney Generals office, the MVAA organization, and the administration of Sara Dunne, whose promotion from head of kitchens to top administrator there itself was a political scam, circumventing the will of members of the State congress who wanted someone else to be the new top administrator.

This made the fiasco of the privatization of the health care workers at the home, which was supposed to save taxpayer money and solve other problems the home had with some of the states unionized workers at the home, even worse for the residents.  Privatization seemed to be a good idea. It turns out it the way it was managed, was not. And the governments mismanagement and lack of oversight of the new privatized health care contracts and people, helped to create the history of abuses to veterans at the home that we know of today.

We know that the idea behind the creation of the Michgan Veterans Affairs Agency was the result of Michigan being named as being in last place for the amount of money it spent on veterans. We were 52 out of 52 locations, which included all 50 states and the 2 US territories of Guam and Puerto Rico.  In order to get federal funding (money) we had to change the way we did things to qualify to get that money and that was the job of the MVAA. To create policies that brought us up to qualification standards that would get us federal money to spend on veterans. And it worked. Michigan began receiving federal money and spending on Veterans increase. This started with Governor Rick Snyder's first term in office which started in 2010. Michigans term limits will prevent Snyder from running for office again in 2018, as he has served 2 full terms and Governors have a max of 10 years as Governor under this law.

The previous 8 years were under Democrat Canadian born governor Jennifer Granholm, who presided over Michigan during the 2000 - 2008 economic collapse of the industrial based economy that once made Michigan one of the best places to live and where Detroit once held the title of the highest per capita income city in the USA.

As time went on at the Vets home and the problems continued despite constant bad VA audits that showed continual problems at the home, audits that were signed off by Battle Creek VA director Mary Beth Skupien (a federal employee) things came to a head when one particular VA auditor got so frustrated with the way he was being handled by the Vets home administration while he was doing his audit, that he ended up writing the audit that turned out to be the one that exposed beyond deniability that there were serious problems at the Grand Rapids Home for veterans.  The MVAA and the Republican party could no longer ignore the problems which had been made public by that audit.

Advocates at the time continued to speak up for the veterans at the home. Yet the still seemed to be ineffective. As the Michigan legislature became involved in their own investigation, hearings were held in at the capital in Lansing Michigan by both House and senate committees, who invited veterans and advocates to speak to the legislature.

We now know that at this time there were two groups of advocates for the veterans. The first group was the Service Organizations, (SOE's) who for years advocated for veterans, helped to support the home with donations for veterans, money for activities and projects such as the Grilling hut located next to the pavilion where there are 6 gas grills used for picnics for the veterans. The remodeling of the Grotto park, the building and maintaining of the Band Stand, providing bingo games, and prizes for residents, and donations of all kinds.  Without this outside help, the home would have been just another institution for veterans. And these SOE's also advocated for all of Michigans Veterans. These SOE groups include but are not limited to groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), American Legion (AL) AmVets, and others.

The there was what I call the "inner circle" (ICU) advocates. Those advocates who were members or residents, both present and past and the family members who dared to speak up about what the personally experienced at the home.

Around March of 2016, The State of Michigan House of Representatives joint committee made up of the members of the House ethics committee and the Military affairs oversight committee herd testimony from the public on the conditions at the Veterans home. Advocates from both groups as well as others testified to this committee. Last to speak on the last of the 3 days of hearings was American legion spokes person Mark Suttons who put a wet blanket on the testimony of those who went before him. Basically Mark, a person rarely seen at the Vets home, told the legislature, that "not everyone thinks its a bad place to live" after hearing horror story after another about the conditions at the home. 

Then on June 6th, 2016, the state legislature did something it has done only twice since 1990 - it held a hearing outside the capital. They came to the Grand Rapids veterans home to give veterans who could not travel to Lansing earlier that year, a chance to speak to them. Again advocates from all groups attended.  

The result were some changes to the home, and the homes administration. Sara Dunne was retired. MVAA announced a new care system to be put in place, with a CEO acting as president and several vice presidents, and each home with a daily operation officer (DOO) to report to the CEO.  Leslie Shanlian was chosen to be CEO, with the current administrator of the Jacobetti home in the UP to remain as DOO, and Scott Blankey was hired to be GRHFV's DOO. Both Leslie and Scott signed 2 year contracts and were hired to turn the place around. 

Also the creation of a new authority to run the Michgan veterans homes, which would upgrade the model being used. After looking at other states systems, it was decided to adapt one similar to what Tennessee has.  During this time, CEO Leslie quit her job first claiming family issues, then later admitting she was frustrated and tired of  being interfered with by MVAA officials, the red tape, and not being allowed to do the job she was hired to do. I am also told she found it difficult to work with Scott. 

And of course the entire system when on the attack of the privatized health care workers, the contracts with J2S, blaming J2S for a lot of the problems, when in fact, these problems were allowed to continue by GRHFV administrators and the MVAA who acted so slowly to identify and correct problems. The fact that contracts were in place that limited what the could do, hampered their ability to do this.

Many issues identified at the hearings, and the resulting investigations and audits still exist at the home, despite the many positive changes that have happened. Yes Leslie and Scots work has improved conditions at the home in many ways; and in many ways the administration now missing Leslie, still has a lot to do. Brad Slagle, the DOO of the J Jacobetti home in the UP took up the CEO job on a temporary basis. As of today I do not know if a permanent replacement is being looked for as the main focus of energies seem to be the creation, implementation, and execution of the new authority that will end up running the Michigan Veterans home system. The new system calls for several smaller homes be built in various population centers, more central to where veterans live. No longer having one big facility like the GR home. Each new home will have about 150 or less rooms for veterans. And will draw on local resources thus making it easier for the state to provide services to the veterans. This of course is dependent upon obtaining federal money to help pay for it all. A new home will be built on the grounds of the current GR home, and the old buildings will be either removed (Rankin building will be removed) or renovated for other uses such as office spaces.

During the troubled times of the previous administration the Attorney Generals office ran by Bill Schutte was informed of the on going problems at the home. His response was "the veterans do not have to live there, if they don't like it they can live somewhere else", or words to that effect. It is now clear to many advocates that his attitude towards veterans has not changed. - He could care less.

The scathing audit of 2015 and the outrage of veterans and advocates, and members of the legislature who claim they knew nothing of the happenings at the home despite MVAA employee James Dunn claiming he informed them of everything, caused the AG's office to start a criminal investigation of the home. Prior to that, when advocates went to Lansing to file reports, they were met with a very negative attitude by government workers. Instead of agreeing to look into the complaints, the advocates were told anything that was given to the government would be used to protect it, not investigate it for wrong doing.

July 26th, 2017, AG's office announced the filing of 11 charges against middle management workers at the home. Not one charge against the upper administration. Many feel these people are being used as scapegoats and advocates anger hit an all time high at this news. The AG news release claimed their investigation was ongoing.

However reports from advocates who have contacted the AG's office have claimed that the AGs office is just plain incompetent itself. They tell me that Names, places, events were given to the AG's office after Schuette made the announce me that he was opening the investigation and needed information, and now the office is claiming they had none. Also, I am told that some how, several incident reports got mixed up and instead of having say 7 different incidents, the AG thinks there were 3 and the information about those 3, has stuff from the other 4 making it difficult to know what really happened. Well the advocates tried to straighten them out, and they are efforts are hitting a brick wall - again.

Advocates are extremely frustrated with the lack of the AGS's office to investigate, and hold accountable any high level administrator or MVAA official and have decided they will not accept the AG's resent report as being completed. On the contrary, many feel its time to break out the big stuff  and light the fires for a drawn out battle with the AG's office. 

AG Bill Schuette is planning on running for Governor in 2018 and many are saying this will be the thing that he will have to face and will cause him to lose the election.  And advocates are still learning what they have to do to force our government to hold those people in upper administrative positions accountable for the suffering they allowed to happen.

This isn't over yet.  Advocates tried to do the right thing, but when your government refuses to do their job, it is a call to action.

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