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Colorado State Veterans Home at Fitzsimons – Despite Positive Survey Results, More Problems.

February 11, 2019

Veteran Gerry Muehl

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“They [the government] want us to volunteer and get drafted and go into combat situations where we get screwed up or get killed. We’re told “good job” – but that’s it. They don’t do a thing for us. They’re not going to help us out.

You have to fight the VA continuously to get anything; the politicians don’t want to do anything either.”

Gerry Muehl, Vietnam War Marine Veteran

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1.

Gerry Muehl has a home in a quiet single family neighborhood in Aurora, Colorado just west of Chambers Road, about a mile north of the interstate, I-70. An American flag flies outside of his door, his photo as a young marine hangs in his living room. He wore a Reagan-Bush t-shirt for our interview. When I asked him about the t-shirt he commented: “The only Republican that I know that ever did anything for us was Ronald Reagan. He gave us the biggest pay raise that the military ever saw. I think it was in his first term.” Gerry doesn’t think much of other recent American presidents, Democrat or Republican.

His current, long-term residence is the Colorado State Veterans’ Home at Fitzsimons on the Anschutz Medical Campus; it is a part of a system of Colorado state nursing homes for veterans run by Colorado’s Department of Human Services. The residents, staff and family members refer to the facility simply as “Fitz”. Given his many ailments, Gerry spends a fair amount of time going from one specialist to another in an attempt to manage his conditions. He only returns home to visit with his wife once a week on Saturday mornings. Over the past few months I visited and interviewed Gerry twice, most recently this past Saturday, February 9.

Although I am a few years older, our lives straddled the same decades. More, we shared a date when our lives changed. As he was recounting his personal history, I noted that the same month he joined the marines – September, 1966 –  I left the country for North Africa. He spent the better part of the next several years in Vietnam with the U.S. military; I was in Tunisia with the U.S. Peace Corps, both examples of service to country.

Reviewing our taped interview revealed a life of work for the federal government in one capacity or another for more than thirty-five years. Born and raised in South Dakota and later in Glen Barry, Maryland, Gerry noted:

“I joined the Marine Corps when I was in Dayton, Ohio. I started boot camp on the first of September, 1966. I went to Vietnam on the first of September, 1967. I left Vietnam the third week of August, 1970. Got out of the military; went back to Ohio. At the time the U.A.W.(United Auto Workers of America) ran the state; they shut the state down so I ended up back in the service. I joined the army. I spent about twelve, thirteen years in Europe in supply, I was in Admin, I was in armor; I spent three years at Ft. Riley, Kansas in armor – field mechanic working on tanks, riding tanks, shooting tanks. I spent a year as a training NCO at Ft. Hood. I retired [from the military] in 1987.

Then I went to work for the Federal Reserve for a couple of years as a security guard. I went to school and became a mechanic. Then I went to work for U-Haul for three, four years and then I spent ten years working for the post office.”

It’s not a mystery that Gerry’s health is poor. I didn’t ask him about it but at some point – explaining how difficult it is to deal with the bills and the collection agency harassment he and his wife were experiencing – he elaborated on his condition:

“In 1966 I got tested for diabetes; I found out I had diabetes. The condition progressed from diabetes to glaucoma and Parkinson’s Disease. I’ve had disc degeneration in my back where two discs were dissolving. There’s nothing they can do about it. I’ve had four discs from C-3 to C-7 fixed in my neck. I’ve had both my shoulders replaced with artificial shoulders. I don’t have any kind of left shoulder anymore because the last two they put in kept dislocating so they didn’t put another one in… I’ve got an artificial knee. I’ve got throat cancer and probably lung cancer and the diagnosis is I’m dying.”

Gerry’s health is deteriorating, no question. His mind is not. He is alert and sharp. He has become something of an expert on maneuvering through the bureaucratic maze which veterans must pass through to get health services. The maze necessitates learning the diverse, often contradictory policies and procedures of state and federal agencies which often don’t know what one or the other is doing. It is a world of Catch-22s. The mental energy needed to comprehend the myriad of contradictory details, and then to agitate for patients’ rights while dealing with the physical, psychological and emotional ailments eating away at body and soul defy description. Gerry Muehl is as proficient at it as anyone.

_____

A fish rots from the head down … and so does a government agency

2.

I went to visit Gerry to check out – verify or deny – rumors I had been hearing for months, that many “Fitz” residents and their families were receiving bills for medical expenses that it is commonly believed that the facility legally should have been paying.

There were reported cases of some of those bills being sent to collection agencies; the collection agencies,  aggressive and invasive, were mercilessly harassing these residents and family members – or so it was claimed.

Yet the facility, Fitz, as the story went, was not investigating these claims. Did I get verification that the accounts of some forty residents had been mismanaged? No. But the two residents interviewed suggested patterns of financial mismanagement that deserve attention. The tip of the proverbial iceberg? That would require serious investigation by the state attorney general’s office. As the interviewed residents tell it, that state office has been singularly unresponsive to their complaints. One example, an exchange between Gerry and myself:

Gerry Muehl: “I called the (state) Attorney General. The Attorney General told me there is nothing they could do.
I called the VA inspector’s office (investigator general) and they told me they had no authority over and nothing to do with Fitzsimons.”
Rob Prince: “When you called the State Attorney General and they replied that they couldn’t do anything to help you, did they refer you to anyone who could help, do something?”
Gerry Muehl: “Nobody. He told me to call the Veterans Representative for the state. The Veterans Representative for the state told me I had to go through the facility administrator. I told him that I had done so already and nothing had happened. And then they said “Oh well.”

Gerry reported that the harassing calls from collection agencies (to both he and his wife) which had gone on for months had stopped. The unpaid bills kept coming. “The situation has improved a little, but not a lot.”

Before meeting  Gerry Muehl, I had  interviewed another resident from the Colorado State Veterans’ Home at Fitzsimons, Don Griffis. Although he could not confirm the number of cases involved, he admitted that he, himself, was getting such bills and being harassed by collection agencies for expenses he understood were the responsibility of the facility. Less than ten days after our meeting in late December, 2018, Griffis died.

Why write about this?

If the rumors are true – and at least in two cases they are not rumors, but fact – it’s time for the facility to stop fiddling around and pay the outstanding bills. The pressure from bill collectors and collection agencies on veteran residents having to deal with mounting physical and mental health issues and the emotional problems associated, could be considered a form of abuse. 

Keep in mind that the Colorado State Veterans Home system is run by the state’s Department of Human Services, the same agency that runs the prisons, child welfare services, state mental hospitals, as well as state veterans homes. Recently elected Governor Jared Polis selected Michele Barnes as the department’s new executive director. Barnes replaces outgoing executive director Reggie Bicha. Recently Bicha invited the Human Services employees to a farewell party before he transitions to future mismanaged debacles. Despite the friendly farewell, his tenure over the course of the John Hickenlooper governorship was nothing short of an ongoing train-wreck.  Commenting on the Bicha years Gerry noted:

“The current director, Reggie Bicha, is probably out the door. He’s had big problems with the state, with the state legislature, but Hickenlooper never did anything about it. Bicha was admonished by the entire legislature. He must have really done something to make them all mad.”

An understatement if ever there was one.

During the Bicha years the entire system was plagued with one crisis after another, suggesting mismanagement and/or incompetency. Some of these problems – like the crisis at the Pueblo mental health facility – did make the news and were addressed. As a result of the intervention of Governor Hickenlooper’s office, Reggie Bicha rode out the storm. Instead, several high level state administrators,  were let go, among them Vicki Manley (rehired as General Services Director of Westminster, Colorado). That was just the tip of the Human Services crisis iceberg, part of which was what appeared to be a never-ending, ongoing crisis at “Fitz” as well as within the state prison system.

What stands out about the Bicha years is the degree to which the media, the state attorney general’s office and key members of the legislature were informed and aware of the extent  of the problems, be it the pathetically low employee pay scale, working conditions, or mismanagement. Little was done to address these systemic problems. This is only  a hint of the mess that Michele Barnes has inherited.

Sometime in the second half of 2018 word began to circulate from a number of sources that things had gone awry – again.

What this time?

There was another curious development. The administration has what might be called “a merry-go-round” history. At approximately the same time that word started to leak about the facility’s unpaid resident medical bills, four facility administrators jumped ship (well, one was pushed, so to speak). The Chief Administrator, the Assistant Administrator, the Director of Social Services, and the Volunteer Coordinator all left in a hurry. Nearly five months later, the institution still does not have a permanent administrator. Nor have the other three positions been filled.

Too many issues – all happening at once.

Combined with these recent “challenges” is the long-standing issue of staffing problems. This is true despite two recent fact-finding surveys – one by the state of Colorado, the other by the Veterans’ Administration – which found little fault with how the institution is run. At least according to the investigating experts, Fitz has a minimum of problems, and has recovered from darker and more chaotic days of a few years back. However the Medicare Nursing Home Profile most recently rated Fitz’s “overall care” at a lousy one star, meaning indicating “much below average.” 

Still, Fitz has difficulty retaining work staff especially certified nursing assistants (CNA’s), nurses and dietary employees. Many consider the staff overworked and underpaid; this is not a problem unique to Fitz, but a national nursing home problem. Surveys of directors of nursing homes (DONs) nationwide note that the difficulties in retaining nursing staff  are high on the list. Turn-over including use of agency staff results in institutional problems such as discontinuity of care and added stress to residents continually adjusting to new caregivers.

Months later, the bills keep coming; the collection agencies keep nagging residents and families.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anne permalink
    February 12, 2019 2:49 am

    I’ve known Gerry for years, smart as can be, asks the questions no one wants to answer and has taken a lot of hits for it during his time as a resident at Fitz. He’ll never give up and we can never give up on him. Thank you for giving our forgotten veterans a voice.

Trackbacks

  1. Colorado State Veterans’ Home at Fitzsimons – Saying Goodbye to Don Griffis; Emerging Financial Mismanagement Scandal | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog

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