BRISTOL, R.I. (WPRI) – The state has tapped an architectural firm to redesign doorways at the R.I. Veterans Home, which opened in 2017 with at least 23 doorways not suitable for veterans with larger wheelchairs.
The $121 million long-term care facility, which is home to nearly 200 wartime veterans, has hired Brewster Thornton Group Architects to design the new doorways. The design work is estimated to cost about $20,000, according to spokesperson Michael Jolin, who added that the state will then need to hire a construction company to make the actual alternations.
“We are in design and hope to have our plans complete by this summer,” Brewster Thronton partner Barbara Thornton wrote in an email, adding the focus will be on making it easier to exit near the residents’ living areas and to widen certain interior doorways.
The work order comes two weeks after Target 12 first reported some residents with larger wheelchairs are unable to use certain doorways at the facility. John Leonard, who served as a drill sergeant during the Vietnam War, currently has to travel an estimated 150 yards through multiple hallways if he wants to exit sliding doors at the front of the facility in his wheelchair.
He first noticed the problem when residents moved into the new facility nearly three years ago, yet multiple calls for larger doorways have largely gone unheard, according to documents obtained by Target 12, multiple interviews with advocates and Leonard.
“Something is wrong with this picture,” he told Target 12 earlier this month.
R.I. Veterans Services director Kasim Yarn on Monday said the doorways are technically compliant with requirements of the American with Disabilities Act, and were approved during the design process leading up to construction of the facility. Thornton also said there were different levels of security throughout the facility that were considered in the design.
“But if a resident has a concern, we all have a concern,” Yarn said during an interview on WPRO radio.
The work order comes roughly one year after a group of residents and advocates filed a discrimination complaint related to access and egress with the R.I. Governor’s Commission on Disabilities, according to a letter obtained by Target 12.
The complaint sparked a series of meetings, including one on June 6 with Veterans Home administrator Rick Baccus, who “conveyed that issues with door widths and automated access will be addressed,” according to the letter.
A list of work to widen the exterior doors was subsequently discussed during a meeting with Baccus and Brewster Thornton on June 21. The state did not have to go through a bidding process for the new design work, as it amended its existing contract with Brewster Thornton to do the new work, according to Jolin.
“We’re taking a systematic approach to get this done,” Yarn said on the radio.
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 what residents have described as 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.) Baccus, who recently resigned from his post as administrator, is the former president of one of the groups – the Elks Club – that held an event there, although the home denies that had anything to do with why they held the event there.
Nonetheless, Yarn said that the only issues — besides the doorways — that have been raised about the physical facility are parking constraints and a call from residents to have microwaves in their rooms. The director said they’re currently examining whether changes can be made to parking, while microwaves are not allowed under state health and safety codes.
“Their issues have been centered around parking, staffing on the weekend and the microwaves in room,” he said on the radio.
Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo last year called on the R.I. National Guard to come in and help shore up operations at the Veterans Home after Target 12 first reported the facility was facing a nearly $3 million deficit. The team, dubbed the Tiger Team, helped lower the deficit to about $2 million, and is slated to release a full report on the many financial and operational deficiencies that have come up at the nursing home.
The Raimondo administration has also proposed changing the way the nursing home is funded, which would include a new requirement that residents pay 100% compared to 80% of their monthly income to live there. The proposal has been met with opposition from veterans and Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.
Yarn said the Tiger Team report is expected to come out later this week.