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Veterans Chief Hopes to Reopen Nursing Ward in Barstow

March 13, 2004|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's newly appointed secretary of Veterans Affairs said Friday that he wanted to reopen the skilled nursing ward of the state veterans home at Barstow, closed last year in the aftermath of deaths of elderly residents and soaring fines for poor patient care.

Secretary Thomas Johnson also said that he intended to examine whether the facility could be operated better by a private company instead of by state employees.

Johnson, 60, who commanded an Army hospital of 600 beds for soldiers wounded in the Vietnam War, said that reactivating the abandoned ward for the care of ailing elderly former military service members was a "daunting" task, but that he hoped to have a plan by September.

"We have a desire to open it, but it is going to be a challenge," he said in an interview, noting that obtaining the money to do so would be difficult at a time when government agencies were undergoing budget cuts. "This is a front-burner issue."

Controversy has plagued the high desert home for veterans since it opened in 1996 as a state-of-the-art facility. In addition to the skilled nursing ward, the facility is home to about 200 former members of the armed services who live semi-independently and do not require skilled nursing attention.

In the last few years, three elderly vets have died of other than natural causes while at the facility, including one who choked on a spear of broccoli at lunch. The home has also been fined at least $260,000 as a result of what health authorities have described as poor patient treatment.

Additionally, the home temporarily lost its accreditation and millions of dollars in federal Medicare reimbursements, was subject to a chronic turnover of staff nurses and was bedeviled by what critics charged was weak leadership.

As it faced the threat of another heavy fine, the skilled nursing ward was ordered shut down last March by then-Secretary Maurice Johannessen. Its 94 elderly patients were transferred to veterans homes in Chula Vista and the Napa Valley community of Yountville.

Johnson, a hospital administrator in Tulare County for 31 years, was appointed three weeks ago by Schwarzenegger as Veterans Affairs secretary, a Cabinet-level post that pays $131,412 a year.

The governor said then that Johnson's experience running hospitals gave him the "necessary knowledge" to administer an organization that operates three skilled nursing homes, a view shared by Henry Wadahara, California commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"The purpose of appointing him is because he has a background in running hospitals," Wadahara said of Johnson. "In the past, we've had secretaries who had no idea of what they were doing. We'd love to get that [Barstow] hospital running full blast again."

In the interview, Johnson did not set a date for reopening the nursing ward at Barstow, but said it might involve admitting patients incrementally, 20 to 30 at a time, as restarting the program allowed.

Of contracting with a private operator, Johnson said, "I think we have to be open to that possibility, if our goal is to serve the veterans ... in the best way, most efficient way and speediest way." He said private contractors operated state veterans homes in Alabama and Oregon.

But the notion of outsourcing the nursing program landed with a thud at the California State Employees Assn., which represents 241 workers at Barstow. One hundred union members were laid off last year when the facility was closed.

"There are times when [privatization] makes sense," said association President J.J. Jelincic. But he said privatization had been "oversold and you don't end up with the cost savings you expect. You also give up the accountability of government services" by government workers.

Conceding a self-interest, Jelincic added, "Generally speaking, we prefer to have our members do the work."

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