Illinois veterans’ homes are about half full, with 560 beds filled out of about 1,000 spaces available.
Acting director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs Terry Prince told legislators at a hearing Tuesday that admissions are slower than usual because of the pandemic, given that they must pause every time there’s a COVID-19 case in any of the five state-run veterans’ homes.
But he said the real culprit is staffing.
“Staffing, ladies and gentlemen, is a tremendous issue for all organizations, whether it’s at the state veteran’s home or going to a coffee at your local coffee shop. All organizations are facing staffing challenges that have been unseen in years. The great resignation, as it has been called, has caused us to look at it from an aspect of: Do we have enough nurses on staff to provide the two-and-a-half hours-plus care,” Prince said. “And we don’t want to be the average. We want to be above average. We want to be providing four hours of care per resident per day.”
Waitlists could grow. As Vietnam veterans age, Prince predicts a “tidal wave” of new veterans needing higher levels of services.
Prince, who previously led Ohio’s veteran’s department, was appointed to his new post in April.
His predecessor, former state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, resigned in January after allegations of systemic mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic that contributed to an outbreak at the state-run veteran’s home in LaSalle in which 36 residents of the home died.
“Our investigation determined that the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ (“IDVA”) lack of COVID-19 preparation contributed to the scope of the outbreak at the Home. In addition, failures in communication at the Home and within the IDVA leadership also contributed to a delayed response to the outbreak,” an investigation by a state watchdog concluded.
Prince testified at a hearing on gaps in health care coverage that the situation’s improved, with LaSalle passing a federal inspection.
“IDVA has exceeded CDC and DPH guidance with our testing programs and to date we’ve conducted over 120,000 COVID tests – almost double that in rapid antigen tests through our facilities. And because of the unique mission and the pure dedication of our employees, IDVA enjoys the highest overall average of staff vaccination of all state agencies at 88%,” Prince said.
The vaccination rate for residents at state veterans’ homes is 99%, he said.
Prince says he took a “triage” approach at the agency, prioritizing getting immediate needs under control. He’s now moving forward with strategic plans. A long-vacant position to oversee veteran’s homes will be filled by next week, he hired a women veteran’s coordinator, and has established infection control programs.
He’s also looking to add a tech component help trace infections.
“I’m looking into introducing video technology in our homes … to allow for monitoring of communal areas, which will better ensure the safety and security of our homes while also giving us the ability to do much more contact tracing than we do now,” Prince said.
Prince said he helped bring video monitoring to the Walter Reed National Military Center and state veterans’ homes in Ohio.
Communicating how to access available veterans’ services, like federal VA health care, is another challenge.
“Veterans are not being proactively educated or informed about their health care benefits or think that they are not eligible. Just yesterday I enrolled a female veteran in VA health care, who was discharged from the army in January and has gone without any form of health care since then despite having a brain tumor. That example is a weekly occurrence in offices like mine throughout the state of Illinois whose job it is to help veterans access their benefits,” said Jake Zimmerman, superintendent of the Veterans Assistance Commission of Kane County.
Head of the Veterans Assistance Commission of Lake County Andrew Tangen said there are 160 service officers statewide, tasked with working with about 600,000 Illinois veterans.
“Meaning that each veteran service officer currently employed by the state or the local governments of the state of Illinois have to represent 4,000 veterans,” Tangen said. “That number is a number that is unable to be achieved, to reach each and every one of those veterans.”
State Rep. Camille Lilly, D-Chicago, said she’s concerned about inequities of care for Black and brown veterans.
She is advocating for more service officers in communities where veterans reside, and in at least each senate district, but that proposal has stalled.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, said she is concerned that veterans who use medical cannabis are stigmatized on medical reports by federal veterans’ affairs doctors. Used medicinally, she said, cannabis can save the government money spent on prescription drugs with harmful side effects.
Cassidy also pressed Prince on whether residents of state veterans’ homes are allowed to use cannabis.
“They are not at this time,” he said.
Prince said Illinois follows national guidelines set by the federal veterans’ affairs department; Illinois depends on per diem funding from the federal government, and receives federal oversight in the form of visits to state homes.
VA doctors are not permitted to sign off on a required physicians’ authorization needed to enroll in Illinois’ medical cannabis program.
Registered medical cannabis participants are not deemed ineligible for state veterans’ services or a spot in state homes, he said, and veterans’ affairs doctors will incorporate medical marijuana into patients’ comprehensive care plans.
Other areas of concern include combatting high rates of veteran’s suicide and helping veterans to access and afford dental care benefits.
Meanwhile, the state’s moving forward with a $270 million rehab of the veteran’s home in Quincy, following outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease.
Prince several times told lawmakers that the long-under construction sixth state veteran’s home in Chicago will be ready to open soon.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky
Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Jake Zimmerman and Andrew Tangen’s names, and incorrectly identified Zimmerman’s title. It has been updated.