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Residents say health ‘deteriorating’ after cost-cutting at RI Veterans Home

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – When G. Robert “Bob” Buitta lost the ability to walk after suffering a spinal injury three years ago, the Vietnam War veteran started relying heavily on physical therapists to teach him how to get around.

Luckily for him, he quickly moved into the R.I. Veterans Home in Bristol, where occupational and physical therapy were provided in a new, state-of-the-art facility that Buitta could get to easily in his wheelchair without leaving the building. He went for treatment almost every day.

“You think you know everything about your illness, but you don’t know anything until you talk to these people,” Buitta told Target 12. “If I wanted to try something else or do something else, I could do that. They would fit me in.”   

But that all changed on July 1 when the nursing home for wartime veterans — who pay 80% of their income to live there — changed its policy so occupational and physical therapy would no longer be covered by the home.  

“My legs are deteriorating now,” Buitta said of the changes. “They’re shrunk down from normal.”

The change is expected to save the home about $575,000, according to Rick Baccus, a former Army general who now serves as Veterans Home administrator.

Rick Baccus is the R.I. Veterans Home administrator

“That was a saving initiative based on a review of operations,” Baccus said. “We had to look at how we are providing services and we need to be doing it to the best of the taxpayers’ money.”

The nursing home is nonetheless projecting a $3 million deficit, which lawmakers are expected to scrutinize during a House Finance Subcommittee on Human Services hearing scheduled for Tuesday.  

The home’s decision to offload the occupational and physical therapy to public and private insurance – such as BlueCHIP, AARP and United Healthcare Senior – means most veterans now must also pay co-pays to receive the once-covered services.

For those without Medicare Part B, physical therapy is no longer available at the home unless paid for out of pocket. That means those residents must take a bus to the Providence VA Medical Center, which many complain is more trouble than it’s worth.

“When physical and occupational therapy was under a contract and a doctor referred me to them, evaluation was done within a day and scheduled immediately, and I never left the site,” Richard Moniz, president of the R.I. Veterans Home Residents Council, wrote in a Sept. 13 letter to administrators obtained by Target 12.

“There was no bus ride, no waiting, no packet of paperwork – just treatment,” he added. “One thing I really miss is when my back was in a lot of pain I could go to PT and get heat for it.”

The extra costs, and discomfort of traveling nearly 20 miles to Providence, has caused many to forgo regular physical therapy. That includes Buitta, who now receives treatment only a couple times per week. The change, he said, has resulted in his legs “going to hell,” and the co-pays are taking a toll.

“I can’t afford another $40 out of the little bit I have left after they take their share,” he said.  

The belt-tightening that started in July foreshadowed a broader trend of cost-cutting measures that followed at the home. As Target 12 previously reported, the Veterans Home is no longer providing food to visiting family members or employees, and more cuts are currently under consideration.

In his letter, Moniz expressed gratitude for the many amenities that have come along with the new home — which cost $121 million and opened in 2017 — including having individual rooms with bathrooms and showers.

“We are not a group of grumpy old people who live in a home,” he wrote.

But the recent cost-cutting measures that keep popping up have pushed him to speak out, Moniz added.

“Buildings do not take care of people, no matter how big or beautiful,” he wrote. “It’s time to speak up, it’s time to let people know what’s going on.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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