Lawmaker urges probe of Iowa Veterans Home allegations

Last month Branstad acknowledged his staff is reviewing concerns

DES MOINES – A state senator Monday called on Gov. Terry Branstad to place two top leaders at the Iowa Veterans Home on paid administrative leave while independent investigators probe allegations of intimidation, bullying, sexual harassment and other problems at the Marshalltown facility.

Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, said the charges brought during a lengthy Senate fact-finding meeting by former home employees and representatives of veterans’ groups on behalf of residents were “very serious” and should be looked at by the Iowa Attorney General’s Office and the state Division of Criminal Investigation.

Members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and other legislators heard a mixed view of the home’s operations, with nine speakers raising concerns about at atmosphere of hostility, fear and low employee morale while IVH Commandant David Worley and two others giving the facility stellar marks for quality of care and positive vibes.

Worley declined to directly answer many of the allegations raised during Monday’s discussion, saying some were covered by employee or patient confidentiality while others were “personal attacks” concerning management decisions “people aren’t going to be happy with.” He said seven residents were involuntarily discharged in the two-year period ending 2012, citing failure to pay, repeated violations of substance abuse policies and threats of violence against other residents as some reasons for discharge.

Melanie Kempf, a long-term care ombudsman with the Iowa Department of Aging, said she met with veterans home residents who told her the Marshalltown home for more than 600 residents “used to be their home; now they see it as a prison.”

Others talked about personnel problems, managerial changes, harassment, intimidation, and involuntary discharge of residents under Worley’s tenure since August 2010 that committee members said warranted further examination by the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee – which has wider investigatory and subpoena powers.

“If the culture out there is hostility and fear, it’s a little hard getting people to want to talk or say anything to any investigator if they think it’s going to get right back to the head and nothing happens and they’re afraid of their jobs,” Sodders said.

“Based on the information I had gathered before today’s meeting, and what we have heard today, I have serious doubts that Commandant Worley should continue in his position and would not vote for his re-appointment,” added Sodders, who urged Branstad to place Worley and IVH deputy director Shauna Callaway on leave pending an investigation.

Last month Branstad gave a strong vote of confidence to managers at the Iowa Veterans Home, but acknowledged that his staff is reviewing concerns that have been raised regarding the facility’s operations. The governor reiterated his support again Monday.

“The governor is proud of the entire staff for their standard of care and commitment at the Iowa Veterans Home. The Iowa Veterans Home received flying colors, and a sterling report, in its annual review by the Veterans Administration for the care it provides its residents,” Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said in an email statement.

“We are confident that our veterans are being extremely well cared for at the Iowa Veterans Home. David Worley has been a strong, effective leader at the Iowa Veterans Home, and Gov. Branstad wholeheartedly supports him,” Albrecht added in his email statement.

Sen. Joni Ernst, a Red Oak Republican who serves in the Iowa Army National Guard as a lieutenant colonel and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, said she believes the situation at the Iowa Veterans Home warrants a closer look based on the testimony provided Monday but she urged caution.

“I think we need to be careful what we’re saying and what we’re accusing people of,” Ernst said. “But the veterans come first. Let’s be cautious, but let’s sort this out.”

Committee chairman Sen. Daryl Beall, D-Fort Dodge, said he expected the panel to meet again this week to discuss possible recommended actions going forward as it relates to the Marshalltown facility.

Worley said providing top-notch care to veterans is the home’s primary mission, adding that some of the concerns raised Monday could be attributed to poor communication.

“If people have questions, please come to the Veterans Home and ask them,” he told lawmakers.

Col. Todd Jacobus, chairman of the Iowa Commission on Veterans Affairs, praised the “transparency and openness” that Worley employs in operating a facility serving more than 600 residents with a workforce exceeding 800 staff members.

“There’s always a rest of the story and when issues of a sensitive nature have been brought to our attention we’ve asked David Worley about it,” Jacobus said. “David Worley has always had a response that makes sense.”

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