BRISTOL, R.I. (WPRI) – If a fire broke out at the R.I. Veterans Home, most of its nearly 200 residents could exit through doorways just feet away from their bedrooms, living areas or dining rooms.
But not John Leonard.
“Big John,” as he’s known around the home, has a wheelchair that’s too wide to fit through the outside doorways near his living area, meaning he has to travel about 150 yards — he estimates — through multiple hallways to exit sliding doors at the front of the facility. The distance, Leonard told Target 12, has made him consider alternative options in the event of a fire.
“At first, I thought I’ll go in my shower, but then realized that if you’re in the shower and smoke is coming in, you’re going to die anyways – you can’t breathe,” he said, adding he would likely try to “either break a window or try to get out through the main door.”
The narrow doorways are one of many issues at the home fueling frustration among residents, families and employees. Expensive equipment goes unused, visually aesthetic rooms sit empty and the crown jewel – an eye-grabbing galley at the center of the home – has served more as a venue for lavish parties thrown by outside groups than as a central dining room for residents.
Multiple people told Target 12 that Veterans Home employees staffed at least some of those events, raising questions about whether taxpayer money went toward private parties held at a publicly funded nursing home for veterans. (State officials claim the staffing was done on a volunteer basis.) The facility’s outgoing administrator, Richard Baccus, is the former president of one of the groups that held an event there.
In-Depth Coverage: RI Veterans Home »
Richard Moniz, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, detailed some of the mounting disappointment in a letter to state officials in September.
“We thank the people of Rhode Island for spending their tax dollars on us,” Moniz wrote. “However, buildings do not take care of people, no matter how big or beautiful.”
‘Something is wrong with this picture’
Target 12 has visited the Bristol facility several times since Veterans Day, when it first emerged the home was facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, and spoken with more than a dozen residents, employees and state officials.
Most agreed the long-term care facility is beautiful and serves as a grand tribute to Rhode Island veterans, with historic mementos of foreign wars adorning the walls throughout the home. The aesthetics, cleanliness and layout of the building are often likened to a Marriott Hotel.
But many also agreed parts of it serve better as a museum than a facility for aging veterans. In recent months its operations have become so dysfunctional that Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo has called in the R.I. National Guard, Baccus has resigned, and the General Assembly has held several hearings to try and sort out the mess.
State and federal taxpayers pumped about $121 million into the new 110-acre complex on Mount Hope Bay, which opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by state and congressional leaders in 2017. Yet two and a half years later, there are still parts of the building that have gone relatively untouched.
Residents and employees claim a state-of-the-art gym is typically empty, an aquatic therapy pool is rarely used, and Target 12 saw some of the original packaging still attached to whirlpools that each cost $10,000. When turned on, brown-colored water rushes into the whirlpools, which employees suspect is caused by rusty pipes.
“It’s ridiculous,” said G. Robert “Bob” Buitta, a Vietnam War veteran. “I don’t know of anybody that’s ever used it.”
Leonard, who served as a drill sergeant during the Vietnam War, first learned he couldn’t fit through the doorways near his room when the residents moved into the new facility. He has joined with fellow residents in larger wheelchairs as well as veteran advocates in calling for wider doorways, but said their request has largely gone unheard.
“Something is wrong with this picture,” Leonard said.
When Target 12 inquired about the problem, state officials said there’s now an effort underway to fix the problem, estimating it will likely be completed within the year, “pending necessary approvals.”
Lavish parties for outside groups
Perhaps the biggest running joke at the facility is the number of meals residents have had in the galley – a giant mess hall designed to serve as a centralized dining area for residents.
“Zero,” Buitta said.
Nevertheless, the galley has been used at least five times for parties hosted by outside groups, including the Bristol 4th of July Committee Ball, the R.I. Veteran Home Family Council and the Rhode Island Elks Association.
Residents are particularly critical of the latter where Baccus – who has run the Veterans Home for eleven years – served as Elks president and is a current member of the Bristol lodge, according to the Elks National Foundation website. Baccus was also a featured speaker at the Bristol 4th of July parade in 2011, according to the group.
Several veterans, meanwhile, claim they weren’t invited to the parties, which included catered food and alcoholic drinks. Residents are restricted from drinking alcohol at the facility.
“The first time they had a party, me and several other residents… tried to crash it,” Leonard said, pointing to a photo pinned on the wall of his bedroom showing a group of residents gathered outside the galley. “They wouldn’t let us in.”
Veterans Home spokesperson Michael Jolin said Baccus’ Elks membership “did not play a role in the Elks’s use of the facility at no charge because the home does not charge any community organization to use the facility.”
When asked who can use the facility for outside events, officials said it’s offered for free to “veterans’ groups and community organizations who support the town of Bristol, veterans, and the residents at the home.” But it’s unclear when or how those rules were created, as there is no written policy, according to state officials.
Residents, employees and advocates interviewed by Target 12 also claim employees helped staff at least some of the parties. Jolin disputed that claim, saying only a handful of staff volunteered and “did so on their own time, not while in a paid status with the state.” There are currently no plans to review any polices for the outside use of the Veterans Home, he added.
“General Baccus has provided exemplary service to Veterans Home, the state, and our nation and has been an honorable steward of the Veterans Home,” Jolin said.
Buitta and others are nonetheless disappointed the galley isn’t used as a place where residents can come together and dine, saying it would be more inclusive than the current setup of eating in six separate dining areas spread out across the facility.
“I would like to use it for what it was built for,” Buitta said. “One of the reasons everyone was so excited about this place were the benefits of it, and now they don’t happen.”
Staffing, meanwhile, is part of why the home has money problems.
“The galley was designed as an alternative place for residents to receive meals,” Jolin wrote in an email. “However, the Home has not had sufficient staff to operate both the Galley and the six neighborhood kitchens consistently.”
Millions in overtime costs
Raimondo in November called on the National Guard to try and shore up operations at the Veterans Home.
The group organized a unit dubbed the “Tiger Team,” which released part of its findings during a Senate Finance Committee meeting on Feb. 4, citing staffing issues as a central concern.
“In addition to sustained turnover, short-term and long-term absenteeism present staffing challenges,” the group wrote. “Furthermore, [full-time employee] levels do not account for vacation or sick time. These factors drive an overreliance on overtime and contract employees, thus increased costs.”
The Veterans Home last fiscal year spent $3.1 million on overtime pay, totaling about 20% of the $16.1 million total spent on staffing, according to an analysis of payroll records by Target 12. The high overtime costs are fueled in part by the lack of state employees at the home.
According to state documents, about half of the employees are hired through staffing agencies, including Adil Business Systems and Nursing Placement, meaning they have greater flexibility over when and where they want to work. The dynamic leaves state employees on the hook to cover any gaps in staffing at the home.
As a result, state employees are often locked into consecutive eight-hour shifts, mirroring an issue seen at other 24-hour state facilities where overtime costs soar, such as the prison and Eleanor Slater Hospital.
At the same time, there are not enough cooks to staff the spread-out kitchens, and the number of housekeepers employed at the home is 10 more than the industry standard per day, according to the Tiger Team. Raimondo last year blamed part of the home’s cost overruns on cleaning expenses.
The Tiger Team has proposed increasing the number of cooks to reduce the reliance on overtime and renegotiating the current housekeeping contract or ending it altogether “to align with industry standards.”
Few will pay less, more will pay more
Since Target 12 started reporting about the various issues within the Veterans Home, the facility has become a major focus at the State House.
House and Senate committees have held several hearings related to the operation’s finances, and Raimondo and her aides have said the state needs to do better. As a result, the second-term governor has proposed closing the home’s current $2 million budget deficit and allocating slightly more money next fiscal year.
But her plan to come up with the money – unveiled as part of her $10.2 billion budget proposal – has been met with sharp criticism from both residents and lawmakers, as it requires residents to cough up more money to live at the home.
“The veterans have already paid their dues,” said Rep. Samuel Azzinaro, a Westerly Democrat and veteran, who testified during a Feb. 5 House Finance Committee hearing. “We don’t need to take more money away from the veterans. We need to take care of them.”
Raimondo’s proposal would require veterans to pay 100% of their monthly income to live at the home compared to the 80% they pay now. In return, residents’ monthly stipend would double to $300 per month, and co-pays for occupational and physical therapy would be covered.
Residents’ initial response to the proposal was to call it a thinly veiled attempt at making it look like the state was providing more money, when in reality more would come out of the pockets of residents.
“They’re not giving us anything because it’s our money to start with,” Moniz said.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who has influence over the budget process, has come out in strong opposition to the proposal. House budget officials, meanwhile, estimated the governor’s plan would add $1 million to the home’s revenue each year, equating to about $4,470 more per resident on average.
“Current data suggests that a few residents would pay less, but most would pay more,” budget officials wrote in the analysis.
The mounting issues at the home has made many – including Big John – feel like the shiny new building has quickly become an underutilized nursing home where residents are seen mostly as numbers in a budget.
“It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “I love this place, but we have problems.”