A local veteran who needed help during the final years of his life instead ended up in one of the city’s worst-rated nursing homes.
A KRIS 6 News investigation has found the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs continues to place veterans in that nursing home despite being aware of its past problems with neglecting patients.
That’s happening because veterans were not affected during those reported incidents, said Rebecca Buhidar, a nurse manager for home and community-based care in the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend area.
During an unannounced visit in 2014, a state health official had to intervene at The Palms Rehabilitation and Nursing because of the poor health condition of several patients who suffered from dehydration and were at risk for infection, according to an inspection report filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
For that incident, a federal health agency imposed a $188,000 fine on the facility. During that time, the VA renewed a 5-year contract with the nursing home, the VA confirmed.
William Mitchell ended up at the Palms in March 2014 – just two months before the state intervened. Mitchell served in the Air Force for 20 years and fought during the Vietnam War. During his time in the service, he along with his wife and young children moved overseas where he was stationed.
"We traveled the world,” said Deborah Laughlin, Mitchell’s daughter.
The family eventually moved to Corpus Christi, where his daughter Deborah Laughlin grew up and later raised her family.
In 2013, Mitchell or “Papa,” as he was known by his grandchildren, suffered a major stroke.
"He was paralyzed basically on his left side,” Laughlin said. “So he was bedridden. He couldn't turn over, he couldn't sit up, he couldn't do nothing."
In need of help for her aging father, Laughlin turned to the VA. The VA gave her two options in Corpus Christi: The Palms or Retama Manor. Both facilities are poorly rated by a federal agency that tracks nursing home care.
Laughlin picked the Palms because it was closer to her home, she said, but she soon encountered problems.
“I went in one night and he was sopping wet,” Laughlin said.
She alerted staff, and her concerns were brushed aside. “’Well, we were just fixing to make our rounds.’ They would tell me that,” Laughlin said.
That happened on several occasions.
One night in March – Laughlin received a call from her daughter who had just visited Mitchell at the nursing home and was concerned about his health. Laughlin called the nursing home, but then decided to drive over there. At the Palms, she found her father unresponsive in his room.
She had trouble getting staff to help, so she dialed 911.
“At one point, I thought he died on me,” Laughlin said.
She later found out her father was severely dehydrated with an infection.
Mitchell’s condition is similar to those documented in the 2014 report.
The VA knew about the report, but it didn’t match the VA’s findings.
"What we were hearing from our veterans was nothing but positive,” Buhidar said. “I mean, it's not uncommon to get concerns or complaints at all, but we absolutely address them every single time."
In September – the Palms had what the state classifies as another major incident when a patient slipped and fell, and sustained injuries.
The accident could have been prevented, the state noted in the report.
As for Mitchell’s care, the VA didn’t know about it, and his family said there’s reason why.
"He was worried about the retaliation or they would mistreat him or whatever, so I usually didn't say a lot to them. I'd just do it,” Laughlin said.
Six times a year a VA nursing home coordinator visits veterans at the homes. The coordinator talks with veterans, documents their conditions and asks about overall care and any problems. Those visits are unannounced. Buhidar said.
"I really sympathize with them,” Buhidar said, about veterans who have care problems and fear retaliation or mistreatment for reporting it. “And I really hope that doesn't happen because our veterans need to know that we do care about them."
Mitchell died a few weeks after being hospitalized for severe dehydration. He was 81.
As a result of this investigation the VA now plans to provide more nursing home options in Corpus Christi.
"...We will soon open the process to execute additional contracts for CNHs (Contracted Nursing Homes) in the Corpus Christi market," according to a statement issued late yesterday by the VA.
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