Two senior leaders sacked after allegations of ‘toxic’ workplace at Hasting Veterans Home

Two top officials at the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs have been fired two weeks after current and former caregivers spoke publicly about the allegations of a long-term toxic work environment at Hastings Veterans Home.

Larry Herke, commissioner of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, said in a message to workers Sunday that Saturday was the last day for Doug Hughes, deputy commissioner of veterans health care, and Mike Anderson, administrator of the Minnesota Veterans Home in Hastings .

Doug Hughes, left, deputy commissioner for veterans’ health care for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, and Mike Anderson, administrator of the Minnesota Veterans Home in Hastings, testify before the Minnesota House Veterans Affairs Committee in St. Paul Monday, March 6, 2023. Lawmakers are considering a request for $78 million to cover the state’s share of a $220 million project to replace the aging campus in Hastings, which is home to about 150 veterans. (Christopher Magan/Pioneer Press)

“I am aware of the ongoing issues that have been raised at the Hastings Veterans Home,” Herke’s message said. “I decided to go in a different direction with the running of the house.”

Herke’s decision to remove the two top leaders comes before he testifies Tuesday night before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which is investigating allegations from more than a dozen former and current caregivers at the home facility in Hastings.

Herke is also planning a “listening session” before Tuesday’s hearing in Hastings, according to a copy of a flyer obtained by the Pioneer Press.

Leaders, caretakers respond

Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the veterans committee, said the group will “testify and ask questions of Commissioner Herke, veterans home staff and others.”

Murphy praised the staffing decision announced Sunday.

“I am grateful to see the MDVA taking action to address the unacceptable conditions for veterans and their caregivers in Hastings,” Murphy said in a statement. “Our committee and panel take seriously the allegations of mismanagement, retaliation and staff turnover, and their impact on the care and lives of our valued veterans.”

In a statement through their lawyer Chris Wachtler, the concerned carers said: “While these necessary changes are significant and a positive step forward, many have suffered tremendous pain and loss that cannot be undone and should not be forgotten.” .

Over a dozen caretakers described an ongoing culture of workplace bullying, retaliation and harassment at Hastings Veterans Home. They told the Pioneer Press that unsafe conditions are being ignored, unqualified people are interfering with medical decisions and staffing levels are dangerously low.

Caregivers said the toxic workplace culture endangers some of the state’s most vulnerable veterans who turn to these state-run homes because they have nowhere else to go. Many suffer from chronic medical conditions, mental health issues and substance abuse.

In a statement Sunday, Gov. Tim Walz said the state’s veterans are a priority for his administration and should receive “the highest level of compassion and care.”

“The men and women who serve our country deserve nothing less,” said Walz, who served 24 years in the Army National Guard. “This is one of many positive steps the Department of Veterans Affairs is taking to improve the situation for the staff who care for the residents of our veterans’ homes.”

Ongoing issues remained unresolved

While the coronavirus outbreak has led to widespread burnout and the departure of medical staff from many facilities, caregivers say the problems in Hastings predate the pandemic.

Anderson has been the administrator of the Hastings home, which has room for about 150 veterans, since 2018 and also oversaw the home in Minneapolis, where about 50 live. Hughes was his boss and was responsible for making sure the state provided veterans with adequate medical care from 2016.

Both have previously declined to comment on the allegations.

Caregivers say they brought their concerns to Hughes and Anderson, as well as other superiors, but the issues remained unresolved. Finally, they wrote to Herke and Governor Walz in the summer of 2022.

The allegations were referred to Minnesota Management and Budget, which handles human resources for state agencies. In September, a deputy commissioner for management and budget sent a letter saying the Department of Veterans Affairs had “identified areas for improvement” and would “implement continuing education.”

The complaint has been closed, the letter said. Caregivers who raised concerns said no one from the state had contacted them to learn more about their allegations.

New facilities and care concerns

Residents at the Hastings home have also raised concerns about their care. They say staffing levels have dropped to a bare minimum and they may have to wait days to see a doctor unless it’s an emergency.

Hastings Nursing Homes in Minneapolis are nursing homes, not skilled nursing facilities. However, the homes are charged with providing residents with round-the-clock “guidance and support from trained professionals in the fields of medical care, mental health, social care and senior care.”

Hastings Minnesota Veterans Home
The Minnesota Veterans Home in Hastings on Friday, March 3, 2023. (John Autey/Pioneer Press)

State Department of Veterans Affairs plans to open three more houses this year — in Bemidji, Montevideo and Preston — and some workers fear the state has not allocated enough funds to operate what will soon be eight statewide facilities. Governor Walz has proposed a $57 million increaseor about 43 percent, in the next two-year budget for veterans’ health care.

The Minnesota Legislature is also debating spending $78 million to replace the Hastings campus, a more than 100-year-old facility. That’s the state’s share of the proposed $220 million project, with the rest coming from the federal government.

The bill has broad bipartisan support, with Democrats and Republicans also agreeing that workplace issues need to be addressed.

“Allegations of a culture of abuse at the veterans home are alarming and deserve a close look,” Sens. Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton, and Zaynab Mohammad, DFL-Minneapolis, wrote to Governor Walz on March 13.

In his memo to staff, Commissioner Herke said the search to replace Hughes and Anderson was ongoing, and in the meantime, Brad Lindsay, currently deputy commissioner for programs and services, will oversee veterans health care. Craig Smith, a licensed nursing home administrator, will be the interim administrator of the Hastings Veterans Home.

“We will move forward with new leadership at Hastings Veterans Home and look forward to continuing to make positive changes in serving our veterans,” Herke said.

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