State officials moved Thursday to relocate 94 residents from the skilled nursing ward at the California Veterans Home in Barstow, a facility plagued by allegations of shoddy medical care and more than $150,000 in state fines for patient deaths.
The state-run nursing home for aging and disabled military veterans -- which in the past had temporarily lost its license -- faced further scrutiny last month when California Highway Patrol officers urged prosecutors to file criminal charges against two employees and the acting administrator, who allegedly broke the finger of a disabled veteran when they took a lighted cigarette from him.
The case remains under consideration by the San Bernardino County district attorney.
Earlier that same month, the home was fined a record $95,000 in the death of a World War II infantryman who was given medications by two staff physicians that are harmful when taken together.
Three years ago, the deaths of two other residents resulted in the then-maximum fine of $64,500 after the state determined that poor patient care was to blame.
The home's troubles have been a repeated source of embarrassment to Gov. Gray Davis, an Army veteran, who campaigned hard for the support of veterans in his first run for governor in 1998. He promised them that they would be treated with the dignity that they deserved for their sacrifices.
In addition to state fines, in recent years the home lost of millions of dollars in federal payments when it failed to meet federal standards. It also has been the focus of a string of state and federal investigations.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs K. Maurice Johannessen said at a news conference Thursday that the closure decision was made in part to protect the state from further fines -- although the statement announcing the move contained no mention of the home's legal troubles.
"It was a long time coming, [but] the decision was made to do it before it was done for us," Johannessen told reporters.
He said that based on the Barstow facility's past problems, there was reason to believe that there would be additional fines in the future, but refused to provide specifics.
Davis said Thursday that he ordered the restructuring at Barstow because it was "the right thing to do." As the self-described veterans' governor, he said he is "committed to providing the quality care that California veterans deserve."
Johannessen, appointed by Davis in November, said the current residents in the nursing home program will start being moved next week to nursing facilities at the state's two other veterans homes in the Napa Valley town of Yountville and in Chula Vista.
The home's 220 residents who can care for themselves and 58 residents who need help with day-to-day living, but not everyday nursing, are unaffected.
The decision to abandon what had been a long campaign to rehabilitate the troubled nursing facility was praised by some, but the announcement got mixed reviews from residents and staff of the home itself.
"I'd say it is about 50-50," Max West, president of the home's Allied Council of Residents, said Thursday.
West said that many nursing ward residents dread the idea of being moved because "they actually like Barstow, believe it or not."
But he said others at the home believe that the move will enable Johannessen to bring aboard managers and staff members who are more experienced in handling the problems of the elderly.
Johannessen, who had promised a thorough shake-up of the Department of Veterans Affairs, blamed the closure on the continual problem of recruiting and keeping an adequate staff of qualified nurses and physicians at a facility so remote that many employees drive more than 90 minutes to get to work.
But Barstow city officials said Thursday that the home was needed and the nursing facility should remain open.
Patricia Moser, assistant to the city manager, said city officials had been told by the facility's staff just last week that the nursing wing had passed federal recertification. Moser said that while the city was well aware of problems in the past, "those problems were solved."
"The bottom line is we know of no reason why the skilled nursing facility should be closed," she said. "We care very much about the veterans home and very much about the veterans. At this point, we have no reason to believe it should be shut down."
Sen. William "Pete" Knight, a retired Air Force pilot who is critical of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, said he was surprised at the announcement but praised closure of the nursing facility as a wise move.
"In the first place, it was a mistake to put the veterans home out there in the middle of nowhere," he said. "They cannot keep nurses and doctors out there."
Knight noted that some employees must drive for more than an hour to get to the veterans home, and that its distance from population centers limits the off-campus activities of veterans and makes it very inconvenient for family and friends to visit.
Johannessen, a former chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee who was confirmed for his new job this week by the Senate, said the space occupied by the nursing residents would be converted into additional living units for veterans able to care for themselves.
The home opened in 1996 as a state-of-the-art facility, a low-slung modern building painted in the mauve and rust tones of the surrounding desert, with palm trees and a brook on the grounds.
At one point, Davis was so intent on turning the facility around that he ordered his secretary of veterans affairs to live in the nursing home day and night until he could devise a plan for correction. The proposed remedy failed, however, when Davis learned that the official had stayed overnight at a Barstow motel.
On Thursday, amid the noise of live ammunition and bombs falling as part of training exercises at nearby Ft. Irwin, staff members said they were shocked by the decision.
"I feel devastated and concerned," said Mercy Galban, 42, a certified nurses aide who has worked at the home for six years. "I love my patients. Many of them do not want to leave. They consider this unit there home."
Times staff writer Megan Garvey contributed to this report. Sahagun reported from Barstow.
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Veterans home at a glance
State officials are closing the skilled nursing section of the California Veterans Home in Barstow, which has been a target of elder-abuse and mistreatment allegations. Patients will be transferred to state homes in Chula Vista and Yountville.
Opened: February 1996
Patient profile: Elderly or disabled California veterans
* 164 beds for independent living
* 180 beds for skilled nursing care
* 56 beds for assisted living
Source: California Department of Veterans Affairs
Los Angeles Times