House speaker wants more legislative oversight at vets home

December 19, 2019 GMT

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The Rhode Island Veterans Home is proposing new ways to close a nearly $3 million deficit, prompting the state’s House speaker to call for more legislative oversight.

The state veterans services office gave House lawmakers a corrective action plan this week to address its nearly $3 million projected deficit to the enacted budget, which it attributed entirely to costs associated with the veterans home. The office said it had already reduced the deficit by about $900,000 through staffing and billing changes and contract renegotiations.

Among its other ideas, the office said it could go to probate court to claim a total of about $500,000 from the estates of veterans who lived at the home and died without a will, based on a more than century-old law. The office already does this for estates worth $15,000 or less if heirs can’t be located, it said Thursday. The proposal applies to filing claims for larger estates when heirs can’t be located.

It was reported by WPRI-TV.

Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said Wednesday he’s “absolutely opposed” to that idea because the office should not take “our heroes’ remaining resources.” Mattiello said he’s also disappointed the home recently stopped offering free meals to veterans’ relatives who visited, to save money.

After the new legislative session begins in January, Mattiello wants House lawmakers to do a thorough review of the veterans home.

“Our veterans deserve more,” he said.

Kasim Yarn, the state’s director of veterans services, said the veterans at the home “are our highest priority.”

“Difficult budget decisions needed to be made but I’m committed to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the home, so we can continue to provide superior health care and a high quality of life to our honored veterans,” he said in a statement Thursday.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo said Wednesday she’s disappointed with the home’s management and tasked a team with reviewing their operations. The Rhode Island National Guard, working with state officials, plans to recommend ways to trim costs and operate more efficiently by Jan. 31.

The veterans home opened in Bristol, Rhode Island, in 2017, replacing a home at the same site that was half the size. Part of the problem is the budget didn’t fully account for the fact that it’s more expensive to clean and maintain a larger home, but there are other areas where managers are to blame for cost overruns, Raimondo said.

Raimondo said overtime expenditures are “through the roof.”

There are currently about 20 vacancies at the home for nurses and certified nursing assistants, and another 20 staff members are on long-term sick leave, which creates the need to use contractors and drives up overtime costs, according to the veterans office.

It’s also unusual for a veterans home to feed veterans’ families for free, Raimondo said, and she doesn’t think the cost was analyzed before meals were offered.

The former home did charge, but it only needed one cashier for one dining room. The current home didn’t charge veterans’ families and staff for meals when it opened because that would’ve meant staffing seven dining rooms with cashiers, the veterans office said. It stopped serving free meals to family and staff Dec. 2.

The veterans home also recently changed how it provides physical therapy to its residents to save about $575,000 annually. Bills are now being sent to Medicare, which most of the nearly 200 veterans have, instead of to the home. Physical therapy used to be a drop-in service, but now veterans must make an appointment with a referral and are charged a $20 co-pay, the veterans office said.