JEFFERSON CITY • Gov. Eric Greitens has replaced five members of the Missouri Veterans Commission after saying an outside investigation into the St. Louis Veterans Home found serious problems.
In a press conference at the North County facility Monday morning, Greitens said he expected the nine-member Missouri Veterans Commission to meet this week. He said he believed it should move to fire Rolando Carter, the director of the St. Louis home, and Larry Kay, director of the commission.
The 300-bed St. Louis Veterans Home has been under a microscope over complaints by residents, employees and families that the facility is failing to adequately care for veterans. Complaints by veterans and family members about care at the St. Louis home were first made public in a Post-Dispatch column by Tony Messenger in October.
The concerns include improper medication, particularly of antipsychotics; the inability to hire and retain quality personnel; a lack of transparency and honesty in investigating complaints; and a loss of faith between veterans and their families and the administration of the Missouri Veterans Commission.
Three weeks ago, Greitens announced that an outside firm — Harmony Healthcare International — would conduct an independent investigation of the complaints.
Although the governor said his removal of members of the Missouri Veterans Commission and call for the firings of Carter and Kay were based on the results of HHI’s investigation, one of the new appointees said he’d been in discussions about the move with the governor’s office for weeks.
“I’ve been talking with his office folks for probably the last month,” Dr. John Buckner told the Post-Dispatch Monday.
Buckner, a retired Army colonel and a surgeon at the Ferrell-Duncan Clinic in Springfield, said the governor had not asked him to fire Carter or Kay.
“We have not had discussions about any of those factors and specifics,” Buckner said.
The remake of the board marks the third time in recent months that the first-year governor, a Republican, has used his power to put new people in charge of state policies. He earlier named new members to the state school board, who voted to fire former state school Commissioner Margie Vandeven.
At his press conference, Greitens said HHI had found “serious problems,” from outdated policies to, in some cases, failure to provide adequate nutrition and hydration, resulting in malnutrition. Some veterans were left soiled and unwashed, or weren’t moved often enough to prevent bedsores.
“They found, in short, that these veterans were not being treated with the dignity, the respect or the care that they deserved,” said Greitens, a former Navy SEAL who campaigned on a platform that included helping veterans.
Staffers, he said, felt threatened and intimidated into not reporting problems.
“When people are being hurt, when bureaucrats fail to act, when they fail to listen, when they offer only excuses — we’re going to find out, and they need to be fired,” Greitens said.
He said he also had ordered a full investigation into all the state’s veterans homes.
Greitens said his office first became aware of reported problems at the St. Louis Veterans home in July. He said he had asked the Missouri Veterans Commission, which oversees the homes, to investigate.
The commission reported it was unable to confirm the allegations. The governor then asked the Department of Public Safety to investigate, with an eye toward potential criminal misconduct. The Department of Public Safety suggested another investigation, this time by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
A 57-page report from the VA, the second from the agency this year, again found the care at the home to be satisfactory.
In late October, more than 100 family members, employees and veterans asked for an independent investigation of allegations of abuse, mistreatment and neglect at the facility. Missouri’s two U.S. senators also asked for an investigation.
Greitens hired HHI to conduct a probe, at a cost of about $50,000 to $60,000.
In all, the HHI investigation is the fifth time the home has been surveyed for problems in the past year. HHI found the problems that prompted Greitens’ press conference Monday. That included “substandard qualities of care” and “triggers for immediate jeopardy,” defined as problems that have caused or could cause “serious injury, harm, impairment or death.”
“Big government failed these veterans,” Greitens said. “The Missouri Veterans Commission and VA told us that there was nothing wrong with these homes. Based on what the families told us, however, we were still concerned. So we launched an independent investigation. It found failures at the St. Louis Veterans Home that the VA and Missouri Veterans Commission missed or ignored.”
The five members of the Missouri Veterans Commission whom Greitens replaced were appointed by his predecessor, Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, according to Greitens. The four others on the commission are appointed by the Missouri Legislature.
Along with Buckner, new members of the Missouri Veterans Commission named by Greitens are:
• Dr. José Dominguez, a retired lieutenant colonel with service in the Missouri National Guard and U.S. Army Reserves. He is also a surgeon at the Ferrell-Duncan Clinic in Springfield and serves as a reserve deputy for the Greene County Sheriff’s Office.
• Meredith Knopp, who served in the Army as a captain and co-founded a nonprofit for veterans. She is senior vice president of programs and operations at the Mission Continues, the St. Louis-based nonprofit group that Greitens founded for returning veterans before he entered politics.
• Tim Noonan, who served in the Marines as a captain and is a founding board member of the Friends of Soldiers Memorial. He is a retired Boeing executive from St. Louis.
• Tim Smith, who served as a sergeant in the Army. He owns Patriot Commercial Cleaning, a St. Louis firm that has hired more than 40 veterans.
Bellefontaine Neighbors Mayor Bob Doerr said he was “ecstatic” that the new commission would include three people from the St. Louis area. He said he wanted them to make unannounced visits to the veterans home.
Doerr said he also had heard horror stories from relatives of veterans at the home and tended to believe the report by the independent investigators.
“They’re independent. It didn’t come from the state, so that makes it more believable,” the mayor said.
Carter, the director of the home, did not attend the press conference. Doerr said the administrators told him that Carter, who lives in Bellefontaine Neighbors, was at home taking time off.