BRISTOL, R.I. (WPRI) – In the wake of complaints about the cash-strapped R.I. Veterans Home stopping food services for visiting family members, lawmakers are taking a closer look at various issues affecting the nursing home for wartime veterans.
The long-term care facility is operated by the R.I. Office of Veterans Services and is currently projecting a nearly $3 million deficit for the current fiscal year. The money woes contributed to the decision to stop providing food prepared by the facility to visiting family members and employees, first reported last week by Target 12.
Gov. Gina Raimondo’s spokesperson, Josh Block, said she stands by the policy. “The administration wants to ensure that 100% of the food prepared for veterans is served to veterans, rather than to facility staff and visitors,” he wrote in an email.
While Block acknowledged there had never been complaints about insufficient food for the veterans living in the home, he suggested the meals prepared there should only go to residents. (He also said the facility is not currently outfitted with cashiers for visitors to buy a staff-prepared meal.)
“Of course, friends and family are welcome and encouraged to join veterans in the home for meals; they simply will not be given free meals that are intended for Rhode Island’s veterans,” Block wrote. “The same was true in the previous Veterans Home facility, in other state facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes, as well as Veterans Homes in our neighboring states.”
Target 12 interviewed several veterans who are frustrated with the new policy. They said family members could eat free meals with residents in the old home, which was demolished after the new facility was built in 2017. The roughly 200 wartime veterans who live at the $121 million Veterans Home pay 80% of their monthly income for lodging and services.
The state did not conduct a cost-saving estimate for how much the new food policy would save the facility before implementing the change, although state officials said a broader re-evaluation of costs is underway.
“They’re probably throwing away more food now,” said Richard Moniz, who served in the Air Force during Vietnam and has lived at the home since 2015.
The change in food policy has caught the attention of lawmakers, and was discussed Monday during a meeting of the Permanent Advisory Council for the R.I. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Samuel Azzinaro, a Westerly Democrat and a veteran himself, said members of the advisory panel raised several issues surrounding the Veterans Home.
“I’m going to meet with Speaker Mattiello because I think these issues have to go before the House Oversight Committee,” Azzinaro said, adding, “There’s a lot of issues that are popping up and it has to be looked at to find out why.”
Mattiello spokesperson Larry Berman on Tuesday said Azzinaro had already updated the speaker on the matter. “Speaker Mattiello is very concerned about the problems at the Veterans Home,” Berman said. “Those will be addressed in the 2020 legislative session.”
The House Finance Committee, meanwhile, is holding a hearing next week where Veterans Services leaders discuss will discuss their budget and how they plan to fix the $3 million deficit.
House Fiscal Advisor Sharon Reynolds Ferland told lawmakers last month “it’s not clear whether there are any measures to resolve that other than additional funding.”
The only other agency listed on the committee agenda is the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families, which is likewise running a multimillion deficit.
The cost overruns at the two agencies pose the first test of a new law that limits departmental overspending, passed as part of the current state budget and known as Article 2. The new law has stirred up controversy between Raimondo and legislative leaders.
Block said the tightening of the belt at the Veterans Home is “consistent with the General Assembly’s instructions not to incur additional costs to cash-strapped agencies where it does not directly impact the health and safety of the individuals the agency serves.”