BRISTOL, R.I. (WPRI) – Visiting family members at the Rhode Island Veterans Home in Bristol are no longer allowed to eat food prepared by the facility, the Target 12 Investigators have learned, as the home continues to grapple with money problems.
The long-term care facility, operated by the R.I. Office of Veteran Services, has also announced employees cannot eat meals prepared by dietary staff, according to a revised policy obtained by Target 12.
“Family members will only be allowed to dine with their resident on Thanksgiving and Christmas,” according to the written policy, which was revised last month.
The state initially said there was no new policy restricting food for families, but twice changed its response after Target 12 provided a copy of the revised policy and multiple comments made by residents.
Spokesperson David Levesque said the policy change “was in no way intended to suggest that veterans cannot eat with their family members.”
Family members will now have to bring their own food to dine with residents.
“The home regrets any confusion related to the policy update and will make revisions as needed to clarify intent,” Levesque said in an email.
The new rules raised the ire of many among the roughly 200 residents, who all served during wartime and pay 80% of their monthly income to live at the facility, built in 2017.
“I’m from World War II and there aren’t many of us left,” said Waldron “Bud” Huftalen, 94, who has lived at the home for four years.
“These men have been through hell and back, and they’re not looking for something from nothing, but they do need their family out there,” Huftalen told Target 12.
He added that there’s a lot to like about the newly constructed facility, but taking away meals with families is “terrible.”
“There’s nothing better than having a loved one sit down for a meal, and I think that’s very important. They’ve just eliminated that completely,” he said.
Richard Moniz, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, has lived at the home since 2015, and serves as president of the home’s residents association.
“It’s a shot to morale, definitely. It just makes it harder on family members that enjoy having a meal with residents,” Moniz said.
He argued the policy doesn’t make sense from an economic point of view, saying, “They’re probably throwing away more food now.”
The tightening of the belt comes as the veterans agency is projecting a nearly $3 million deficit for the current fiscal year, stemming entirely from the Veterans Home, according to budget documents.
“Given the budget challenges at the Veterans Home, the state is evaluating all practices and procedures at the home to ensure the most efficient use of resources,” Levesque wrote.
Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo has blamed the overspending on a miscalculation of what it takes to operate certain services for the facility, such as cleaning.
During an interview on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers last month, the second-term governor did not mention anything about food services. “The cleaning contract is much more than we thought it would be because it’s a much bigger facility,” Raimondo said then.
The House Finance Committee met this week to discuss departmental spending, focusing in part on the cost overruns at the Veterans Home.
House Fiscal Advisor Sharon Reynolds Ferland told lawmakers the department’s $2.9 million deficit equals about the same amount of money the governor projected the state could expect in savings during the last budget process, most notably in overtime, janitorial and medical services.
“It does not appear that those savings are being achieved,” Ferland said. “It’s not clear whether there are any measures to resolve that other than additional funding.”
The state could not provide an estimate for how much the revised practice of not feeding family members and staff would save the state. The nursing home spent about $1.1 million on food and drink services last fiscal year, according to spending documents shared with Target 12.
“While the potential for cost savings does exist, the precise financial impact will be evaluated as part of a larger review of operational costs as we work to ensure that we are most efficiently using our resources to serve our veterans,” Levesque wrote.
R.I. Office of Management and Budget director Jonathan Womer told House lawmakers this week he expects to receive a plan for correcting the overspending from Veterans Service by Dec. 15.
Under a new law that limits overspending, passed as part of the current state budget and known as Article 2, OMB is also authorized to more closely scrutinize spending at Veterans Services.
“Until the OMB quarterly projections demonstrate that Vets is not projecting a deficit, OMB and Vets staff will meet on a biweekly basis to review personnel and expenditure requests in order to remain in full compliance of Article 2,” Womer wrote in a Nov. 25 letter to Veterans Services Director Kasim Yarn.
The state is now considering additional changes to how food is provided at the home, including “streamlining food services,” according to a spokesperson.