Top administrators of a Minnesota veterans home have been suspended for allegedly retaliating against veterans who complained about their quality of care.
Problems at the Veterans Home in Hastings were first discovered this summer by the Veterans Affairs Department's inspector general after a veteran staying at the home complained to Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
The whistleblower said administrators went as far as to swap one veteran's medication, then tried to have that veteran committed to a mental health facility because they thought he was complaining about his care to a local reporter, MyFoxTwinCities.com reported.
A few months later, the inspector general's July investigation revealed a pattern of unethical behavior.
"Staff feared losing their jobs and patients feared retaliation in the form of violation of resident rights for voicing concerns," the director of the VA Medical Center said in a September response to the Inspector General's inquiry.
Veteran Louie Klimek, whose case triggered the investigation, says he was just giving an interview to a reporter about woodworking, when he was retaliated against roughly a year and a half ago.
He says the home's top administrator, Chip Cox, mistakenly assumed Klimek, known as being a squeaky wheel, was complaining about his care.
"Chip Cox came into my room and said the interview was over and had police there, and came and took me to Regions Hospital," he told MyFoxTwinCities.com.
Klimek, who had lived at the home for seven years, stayed in the hospital's psych unit for six weeks, as administrators tried to get him civilly committed as mentally ill and dangerous, the station reported. When that failed, Klimek says, they tried a second time, even changing his medication without his knowledge.
Fellow veteran Ginny Sieben, who is also a nurse and an attorney, told the station she soon noticed Klimek was becoming a medicated zombie and contacted Franken, who alerted the inspector general's office in April.
But though a July investigation showed multiple allegations of retaliation against complaining patients were true, federal investigators didn't tell the state, which actually runs the home. Instead, in September, they finally told Franken, MyFoxTwinCities.com reported.
"That was a glitch, I will say that was troubling," Gilbert Acevedo, the state's deputy commissioner for veterans health care, told the station. "When things come to us, we want to respond frequently. When we got the letter from Sen. Franken, we responded, and let Sen. Franken know what we were doing."
In the meantime, veteran Tony Rose says residents continued to suffer under Cox's administration.
"They complained about the food and he said, 'It doesn't bother me, I don't have to eat it," Rose told the station. "They treated you like idiots."
The state has now suspended Cox, an assistant, and the director of nursing. The top doctor at the home was also let go, MyFoxTwinCities reported.
Throughout the summer, the state took corrective action on other issues at the Hastings home, where about 180 veterans live. They've hired a part-time psychiatrist, updated staff training on mental health issues and informed patients of their rights, which includes the right to complain without fear of retaliation.
The current investigation into those suspended workers is still ongoing.