Mississippi Legislators weigh in on veterans home woes

Published 10:30 am Sunday, July 29, 2018

Mississippi legislators say they are taking action to correct issues in veterans homes across the state.

On July 10, the EAGLE reported that two former employees of the Mississippi Veterans Home – Oxford were arrested in connection with the death of 93-year-old World War II veteran Durley Bratton. On July 14, the EAGLE published a story titled “Trouble on the Home Front,” in which residents, family members, volunteers and former employees gave their own accounts of conditions at the Oxford veterans home.

Among the concerns presented by these sources, there are three constants: negligence, cell phone use and a lack of appropriate care for residents with advanced Alzheimer’s and dementia.

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For Rep. Jay Hughes, it all comes down to funding. Hughes, who is himself a veteran and also a candidate for lieutenant governor, said he believes it’s an issue of low pay and subsequent high turnover. This is especially true, he said, for direct care workers, or DCWs.

“I’ve been monitoring this for a number of years, what happens down there.They’re very real issues that need to be addressed, but by the same token, so many of them have to do with low pay and high turnover rate,” Hughes said. “I think there’s also a direct correlation to the way we treat our veterans versus those in other states and countries, that we pay [DCWs] less than fast food workers and that shouldn’t be the case. We should place a higher degree of importance on taking care of our veterans than simply paying $8.50 an hour.”

According to staffing website Indeed.com, Hughes is correct. The average pay for a DCW in a veterans home in Mississippi is $8.57 per hour.

If someone can make more money at a less-demanding job, Hughes said, it only makes sense that they would choose to do so. On this issue, at least, Hughes said it’s the fault of the state for budgeting so little in this area.

“It’s shame on the state for budgeting that much for them,” Hughes said. “That’s the problem of the legislature and the budget process, and it frustrates me as a veteran and the son of a veteran that that’s the thanks our veterans get, that level of care.”

Hughes said he has even gone as far as meeting with the veterans home family council, the state veterans affairs board and the veterans home administration to not only discuss issues he’s seen but also make sure there’s some sort of follow-through in coming up with solutions.

He also said he is ‘cautiously optimistic’ in Stacey Pickering, who was recently named director of the Mississippi Veterans Affairs Board and officially started his new position last week.

Pickering, who made the trip to Oxford from Jackson on Wednesday to meet with administrators, residents and the family council at the veterans home, said he’s seen some “low-hanging fruit,” corrections that can be made quickly. However, more issues will need to be addressed in the long-term.

“I’ve already gone before the state personnel board last week, and we are adjusting for a slight pay raise,” Pickering said. “This is not something we can just arbitrarily decide to do, being a part of a state agency. I have to go before the state personnel board any time we do reclassifications, any time we do those kind of pay raises.”

One of the most glaring issues, he said, is the problems family council members and the EAGLE’s July 14 story highlighted in the home’s B-Wing. B-Wing is officially designated as a “secured unit,” but an overwhelming number of residents have advanced Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

The facility does not have a designated memory care unit. As a result, Pickering said he’s taken the issues presented to him personally, and the ones he read about, to heart.

“Simply changing the name of a facility to a memory care unit is not going to solve or address these issues. When you start getting into memory care, it’s very specialized staffing, specialized facilities and specialized training,” Pickering said. “There will be more that will have to go into it to address those issues. Training is the first step, but naturally the staff, the veterans affairs board and the administration will be looking at what those costs are and making sure it’s the right long-term decision for our veterans and their families.”

During his visit to Oxford this past week, Pickering said he ate lunch with the veterans. One of the biggest complaints he’d heard from residents was about the quality of food at the home, he said. So, Pickering said a request for proposal will be sent out in the fall in order to remedy the issue.

To address complaints about the way cell phone use among veterans home staff members could lead to distraction and negligence, Pickering said he plans to act quickly.

“Reality is, cell phones are a part of our lives and highly addictive for all of us. It does impede performance at our jobs, particularly as it relates to care for our veterans,” Pickering said. “Everything that we do as staff, from my job as executive director to every employee at the home, everything we do should be centered on caring for our veterans. If we have anything that gets in the way of that, we have to address it.”

According to the cell phone policy set forth by the Mississippi State Veterans Home – Oxford, employees on the clock are “strictly prohibited” from taking personal calls, texts, checking Facebook, et cetera, and phones should never be visible in work areas.

Both Hughes and Pickering acknowledged that it is unacceptable that the policy was not being followed on a regular basis, and Pickering said a solution could be in place as soon as the next 30 days.

Hughes and Pickering also acknowledged that not everything they’ve heard and seen was negative. The cleanliness of the home, Pickering said, is impeccable. He also said he’s gotten several good reports scattered among the bad ones, and those efforts deserve to be recognized.

“I have visited for several years, and at times found that the complaints of the family council were accurate,” Hughes said. “And then there’s other days I have visited that I thought, ‘What an amazing place this is, and I would hope to be here.’ I’m not beating around the bush or being political, it’s just very subjective.”

U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly, who is also a brigadier general in the U.S. Army National Guard, said that while he doesn’t have much influence at the state level, he’s doing what he can to make sure the people in charge are following through with promised improvements.

Veterans, especially those of the Greatest Generation, he said, have earned the right and deserve to have respect and adequate care.

“I will do all I can to look at it from my viewpoint as much as I can to make sure all those veterans are being treated with the utmost respect,” Kelly said. “We’ve got a great new VA Secretary, Robert Wilkie, who I think is going to be in Mississippi very soon. So I will address it with him and chairman Bill Rowe of Tennessee, who is chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee in the House. I’m not sure what impact it will have, but it all comes back to respect.”

Sen. Roger Wicker, who is currently up for reelection and whose website proudly proclaims “Roger Wicker is a Veteran,” echoed Kelly’s sentiments about respect in a statement to the EAGLE. Wicker also referenced allegations of neglect and abuse.

“Our veterans have served their country and deserve the highest quality of care and respect,” Wicker said. “Any allegation of abuse or mistreatment should be thoroughly investigated by the state, and those responsible should be held accountable so that it never happens again.”