A top official in the governor’s office apologized Wednesday for not alerting the governor about neglect and other potential abuses at the Arizona State Veteran Home.
Gov. Janet Napolitano’s co-chief of staff Alan Stephens, her health care advisor January Contreras and her spokesperson Jeanine L’Ecuyer were aware of problems uncovered by state health inspectors six weeks before they were made public. The trio said they failed to tell the governor about the results of the inspection until March 23, which delayed her response.
Stephens was asked to appear before a joint legislative committee to explain why the governor’s staff didn’t tell the governor sooner so she could have acted to correct the problems earlier.
“Looking back on it, in hindsight, I should have made her aware of it immediately,” Stephens told lawmakers. “I did not and I regret it.”
E-mails obtained by the Tribune show that Stephens, Contreras and L’Ecuyer were told in early February about the inspection by the state Department of Health Services that uncovered problems such as a patient who was ignored for hours by the veterans home staff and forced to sit in soiled undergarments.
Other residents were not supervised while smoking and had burn holes in their clothes. In other instances, staff was not responding promptly to residents’ calls for care.
Lawmakers scheduled the hearing to find out what went wrong at the veterans home and what was done to correct the problems. Chairman of the committee Jack Harper, R-Surprise, used the time to probe Stephens about his 20-year professional relationship with the governor, including Stephens’ involvement in a racketeering scandal in the early 1990s during which Napolitano was his attorney. He was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.
Harper abruptly ended the hearing before Stephens could respond.
“Clearly this is a cheap shot, unfortunately, by the chairman,” Stephens said after the hearing.
Later, Republican lawmakers assailed Harper’s actions and said he was injecting partisan politics into the debate over conditions at the veterans home.
Four Republicans who sit on the committee later criticized Harper’s actions.
“This select committee is not about what happened in the 1990s. This is about what happened in the last couple of months,” said Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson.
Although the long-standing ties between Napolitano and Stephens is well known to most people at the capitol, Harper said he wasn’t aware of it and found it “shocking.”
Meanwhile, Department of Health Services director Sue Gerard assured lawmakers that most of the problems identified during the February inspection had been corrected. In fact, DHS personnel stayed at the veterans home around the clock for days following the inspection.
“Eighty to 90 percent of what needed to be corrected has already been done,” Gerard said.
Since 2004, there have been 18 complaints filed against the veterans home, including 39 specific allegations of improper care. Seven of those complaints were upheld.
Right now, state health inspectors are investigating the death of a resident of the home who died after suffering from infections and bedsores, Gerard said during the 90-minute hearing.
The Arizona State Veteran Home is a 200-bed facility in downtown Phoenix that is responsible for the care of some of the state’s oldest veterans.
The last time the home was inspected was February 2006 when 13 problems were identified. But Gerard said none of those were deemed a high priority.
Some of the problems were due to staffing issues, Gerard said. She said low pay and tough work has resulted in a high turnover rate among employees at the veterans home.
State health officials said Wednesday they have referred several veterans home staffers to state licensing boards for possible disciplinary action.
During a tightly controlled lunchtime media tour, the 12-year-old veterans home appeared well-maintained.
Two veterans who were allowed to be interviewed had mostly positive things to say about their care, but said the night shift was routinely short staffed.
Leroy Center, 63, said one aide might be responsible for an entire unit overnight and call lights could go unanswered for up to an hour. Still, he said the problems have been blown out of proportion.
“It shocked me,” he said of the reports of substandard care. “In the two years I’ve been here, I’ve been treated very well.”
The committee hearings will resume at 2 p.m. today.
- Tribune writer Mary K. Reinhart contributed to this report.