BRISTOL, R.I. (WPRI) – When Jim Fortson received a letter last month from the R.I. Veterans Home, he was surprised to learn the nursing home for wartime veterans owes his family what will likely turn out to be a sizeable chunk of money.
His father, Harold Fortson, was a resident of the state-run long-term care facility in Bristol from 2008 until he died in August 2015, and the state says in the last three years of his life he was improperly billed thousands of dollars per month – creating financial challenges for his family.
“With my mom being sick at the time, they basically took 80% of his income,” Fortson told Target 12. “It cut the revenue to my mom.”
Fortson was hardly alone. The R.I. Office of Veterans Services is currently paying back about $5 million to 56 residents – both living and dead – who were improperly charged so-called “maintenance fees” from 2013 to June of last year. In 2013, then-administrator Rick Baccus signed an agreement with U.S. Veterans Affairs, promising the home would no longer charge residents considered 70% or more disabled.
Despite the agreement, the Veterans Home continued to collect 80% of those residents’ incomes, which is a typical maintenance fee for other residents. Meanwhile, the state was getting reimbursed by the federal government for those disabled veterans, meaning it was improperly collecting from residents and then again from federal taxpayers.
The improper billing would likely have continued if not for John Cianci, a 22-year veteran of the R.I. Army National Guard, who filed a complaint with the VA last year after a Target 12 report about how the Veterans Home was no longer covering the cost of in-house occupational and physical therapy.
The complaint spurred an investigation, and federal officials concluded the occupational and physical therapy fees were allowed under its rules. But through the review, the executive director of the U.S. Office of Geriatrics & Extended Care, Dr. Scotte Hartronft, discovered the Veterans Home was improperly billing the disabled residents.
“I am requesting you cease and desist further maintenance fee charges to all Veterans who qualify for the prevailing rate paid by the VA,” Hartronft wrote to Baccus in a letter dated June 25, 2020.
He called on the state to file a corrective action plan immediately, and his letter launched a series of events that ultimately led to Fortson — who lives in Tampa, Florida — receiving last month’s notification of money owed.
Baccus resigned. He had already planned to resign earlier in the year, but later agreed to stay on longer because of the pandemic. Within two weeks of Hartronft’s letter, however, he’d left, and interim administrator Paul Margo took over the top job.
By September, state officials were shifting blame for the improper billing directly to Baccus, saying repeatedly that the agreement signed in 2013 was done so “under a prior administration” — even though the retired general-turned-administrator oversaw the Veterans Home under the Raimondo administration for more than five years.
“Upon learning of this error, we ceased collecting the fees,” Veterans Services Director Kasim Yarn, who was Baccus’ direct boss, said at the time.
On Sept. 11, state officials reported to Hartronft that they had identified $5 million of improper billing that should be returned to 18 current residents, eight discharged residents and 30 residents who had died. Rhode Island submitted a corrective action plan, promising to “immediately begin to process refunds.”
The VA accepted the plan and as of Jan. 15, the state had hand-delivered $2.3 million to 15 of the living residents, their guardians or power of attorneys. The remaining amount owed is still pending, as the state continues to track down living families and estates – like the Fortsons – to reimburse money taken from their dead relatives.
The money is being paid back without interest and it’s possible the recipients will have to pay taxes on the amounts they receive.
“The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does not require interest be added to the reimbursements,” Veterans Home spokesperson Meghan Connelly wrote in an email.
When asked whether the Veterans Home was having any trouble contacting next-of-kin, Connelly said it was “too early in the process” to know. The plan was to start reimbursements after lawmakers approved the fiscal 2020-21 budget, but that didn’t end up happening until December. The process was delayed six months because state leaders were hopeful the state would receive federal aid to help pay for expenses incurred during the coronavirus public health crisis.
“Many families and/or next-of-kin contacted [the Veterans Home] upon learning of the corrective action plan and that has enabled us to update our records and ensure we have the correct contact information on file,” Connelly wrote in an email.
The home’s current administrator, Margo, along with Yarn, declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.
When pressed for an interview, Connelly responded by saying, “With our COVID-19 response and infection mitigation efforts, vaccine roll-out, and other work, at this time I’m unable to offer anyone for an interview. Please check back with me in about three weeks and we can see where we stand on availability.”
The state’s overall response to the improper billing has fallen short for Cianci, who has become a de facto advocate for Veterans Home residents, saying his No. 1 priority is to be a voice for them.
“It never should have happened,” he said. “They knew what they were doing, they didn’t think they were going to get caught.”
Cianci said he’s heard from the families of veterans who were improperly billed and that many struggled financially as a result. One family, he said, lost their home.
“The mother could not afford to stay in their house,” he said, adding that he’s glad people are getting reimbursed, but he’s disappointed that it got this far.
“It’s a little too late,” he said.
For Fortson, receiving the Veterans Home letter last month brought up a lot of old memories about his father, who served in the U.S. Navy in World War II as part of the Cactus Airforce, a group of airmen that were trapped and flew missions from Guadalcanal. He received citations for his service in the South Pacific before recovering from malaria in Newport.
“In every attack Fortson exhibited extraordinary gallantry and intrepidity while under enemy fire and at all times fulfilled his duties with intelligence and great courage,” U.S. Navy Admiral W.F. Halsey Jr. wrote in a citation to Fortson’s father in the 1940s.
Fortson’s mother, who has also since died, supported her husband moving into the Veterans Home in 2008 after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Fortson said she thought he’d take well to the environment of being around other wartime veterans, and overall Fortson said his father did well at the facility.
His family still doesn’t know how much money they are owed, but he’s submitted all the requested documentation and is awaiting word from the facility. Fortson’s father was paying about $3,400 per month between 2013 to 2015, he said, meaning the reimbursement could total about $102,000.
Fortson said he would rather have had the money back then.
“We kind of felt like that whole situation was wrapped up and behind us, so getting this letter kind of reopens everything for the family,” he said. “It’s a financial benefit that I would have much rather gone toward my parents.”