The head of Maryland’s veterans affairs agency said his department continues to weed out subcontractors and staff who aren’t providing top-quality care at the state-run veterans home, during a budget hearing this week.

Veterans Affairs Sec. Anthony Woods told lawmakers that transforming the culture at Charlotte Hall Veterans Home is his top priority.

Woods explained his team is working closely with contractor PruittHealth to remove subcontractors that “don’t perform to standard.”

Since the Georgia-based nursing home contractor has taken over, at least 35 resident complaints have been reported, according to state documents, more than half of which were abuse and neglect allegations. All incidents were investigated by state agencies, and sometimes law enforcement, and resulted in staff firings and resignations. None of the allegations resulted in sanctions from the federal agency that monitors nursing facilities, as had happened under a previous contractor.

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The complaints ranged from physical harm to missing TV channels, but a department spokesperson said all complaints are taken seriously. At least two of the allegations were verified, and the involved staff members no longer work at the veterans home.

One patient said an aide grabbed their wrist and left a mark, and as recently as last month a patient complained nurses were giving them their medication too early or not at all.

Woods, a military veteran appointed by Gov. Wes Moore, said his staff and PruittHealth continue to raise quality standards by retraining and educating staff and conducting weekly on-site meetings to monitor care quality and perform detailed inspections of the facility.

“I will never be satisfied on any given day until I am done in this role,” he said. “So for me we always should be raising the bar and increasing the standard.”

A PruittHealth spokesperson said they take every allegation seriously, report any incident to the state agency and local authorities and conduct their own investigation.

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The veterans affairs department’s written response confirmed that the new vendor is coordinating efforts to investigate and resolve complaints and make improvements.

“The findings from each review are shared with the MDVA’s on-site quality assurance team who provides ongoing oversight of the facility and verifies necessary corrective action is taken,” a veterans affairs spokesperson, Dana Burl, wrote in a statement.

Woods appeared Thursday before members of a House budget subcommittee.

Dels. Jazz Lewis and Ryan Spiegel, both Democrats, said they were made aware of complaint details and investigations ahead of the hearing, and conversations with the agency about improving care at the nursing home continue. Lewis chairs the subcommittee, and Spiegel stood in for him during Woods’s briefing.

“With the history of Charlotte Hall, we in the legislature are deeply attentive to the needs of its residents who have served their country,” the delegates said in a statement.

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Delegates and senators have received detailed reports of complaints and resulting investigations at Charlotte Hall Veterans Home thanks to a law they passed last year.

They made the demand after years of reported abuse didn’t get relayed to the legislative branch and after Moore fired the former vendor, HMR of Maryland, after he learned the home received the lowest possible federal quality rating — one star — resulting from years of reported abuse and neglect.

State inspectors found the vendor failed to keep patients safe from each other and from staff, according to reports. Also documented was the staff’s failure to execute care plans and to keep patients’ conditions from worsening.

Federal ratings tell consumers how well a long-term care facility is complying with a host of health, staffing and quality measures, including federal and state law. A five-star scale is used by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to rate facilities receiving federal funding. Nursing home operators can be fined and denied federal reimbursement for inspection violations.

Moore’s veterans affairs department announced it had chosen Georgia-based PruittHealth to take over daily operations in June. But this company, too, came with its own troubled history of low federal quality ratings and abuse allegations in facilities it runs in other states.

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In recent years, PruittHealth homes have incurred more than $1.2 million in fines for inspection violations, and in 2021 it settled a $4.2 million whistleblower suit with the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations that the company submitted false Medicaid and Medicare claims. PruittHealth was found not liable.

“You can lose your star ratings — you can go from five-star ratings to one star overnight — it will take many years to become a five-star facility,” Woods told lawmakers, “but in the interim we can provide top-notch quality care.”

Brenda Wintrode covers state government, agencies and politics. Before joining The Baltimore Banner, Wintrode wrote an award winning series of long form investigations for Wisconsin Watch.

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