New Director Vows To Improve Veterans Home In Fayetteville

Facility Has Available Beds, Seeks New Residents

Editors note: The following story is reprinted with permission.

By Doug Thompson, Special Projects and Political Editor, NWA Online

FAYETTEVILLE — Resident care at the Arkansas Veterans Home at Fayetteville is good and can be improved with watchful, experienced administration, said Kriss Schaffer, the facility’s new director.

His biggest challenge is convincing the public of that, he said. The 108-bed home was down to 62 residents last week, Schaffer said, blaming its notoriety for past problems.

"Think about it. We’re the only veterans home in a state with thousands of veterans, and we’re not full," he said.

Schaffer is the state-run home’s third director since October 2012. He’s the first director since the home opened in 2006 who was not promoted from within.

Schaffer has 32 years of experience in long-term care and ran one of the most highly regarded nursing homes in Arkansas — Greenhurst Nursing Center in Charleston. He has the support of the veterans home’s longest-standing, most demanding critics.

The state Department of Veterans Affairs hired him to run the home after a series of failures. These include:

The death of a resident in January 2013 and failure to report that neglect was involved until three weeks later. The supervising nurse was fired.

A resident suffered a broken arm in December 2012. Investigators found she was improperly restrained and four employees filed false statements about what happened. Three of those workers were fired, and the fourth would have been if he had not already been fired for other causes.

The home missed $114,000 in Medicare reimbursements in 2011 because it didn’t file reports in a timely manner.

The most outspoken critic of these failings has been the watchdog group Arkansas Advocates for Nursing Home Residents. The group’s president praised Schaffer’s hiring in a telephone interview

Thursday, calling it the single best move the state could make.

"As president of Arkansas Advocates for Nursing Home Residents, I promise our veterans and their families can be assured that these veterans will now receive the best care humanly possible," said Martha Deaver. The group tracked Greenhurst for years and she has known Schaffer for 15 years, since she first toured Greenhurst, Deaver said. She has personally recommended the Greenhurst home to people looking for nursing home care.

Schaffer, 63, is "exactly the kind of hands-on, personally involved administrator needed to turn the Fayetteville Veterans Home around," Deaver said.

Cissy Rucker, director of the state Veterans Department, agreed with Deaver.

"His credentials and experience are outstanding," Rucker said. "A check of his previous work showed both he and the nursing home he owned have long standing reputations for excellence. We then learned he visited the Veterans Home prior to his interview. That was impressive."

Schaffer, a brother of retired Tyson Foods executive Archie Schaffer, had left the nursing home business and was joining the Peace Corps for a mission to the Ukraine. For 32 years he worked at the family-owned, 96-bed Greenhurst Nursing Center and was top administrator at the home from 1991 until last year. During that time, Greenhurst won consistent high ratings from state and federal regulators for quality of care.

Schaffer took the job Jan. 8. His assessment that the day-to-day care at the home was good did not take long. When asked how he could judge the care so quickly, he said his long experience in the matter was backed up by some of the most comprehensive recordkeeping he’s ever seen.

"I’m looking at a weekly standard-of-care report right now," Schaffer said, nodding toward his computer screen. That’s a report compiled on every resident. He did not reveal the resident’s private information, but said these reports include everything from the medications that patient received to the condition of his skin to the resident’s weight.

"I never had anything like this kind of detail" in his private business, he said. No resident of the home had a skin problem such as the start of a bedsore at the time of the interview Tuesday, Schaffer said, something almost unheard of in a nursing home.

He can verify the quality of care, Schaffer said, because he’s done a little reconnaissance work. "I came in before half the people here knew who I am," Schaffer said. "I have yet to see any CNAs (certified nursing assistants) loafing around, doing nothing. The patients are clean and cared for." State law requires doctors to conduct medical rounds once a month, he said. The veterans home has a doctor who comes in once a week, with a follow-up visit each week by his nurse practitioner.

Schaffer said that while the patients are cared for, there are other issues that will not be easy to track and correct.

"Not having a kitchen was almost a deal-breaker for me," Schaffer said. "But I talked to the residents, and they don’t have many complaints about the food. Still, at Greenhurst if somebody wanted a grilled cheese sandwich, we’d make him a grilled cheese sandwich."

Food at the home is served by a food service contract. "We’re on the third floor," Schaffer said from his office. "The residents are on the fifth and sixth floor.

I don’t like that and want my office on a floor where I can see residents. We haven’t found a way to do that yet, but we’re working on it."

"They carved a nursing home out of an old hospital, and we can’t escape that," Schaffer said. "There’s not much flow, by the building’s very nature. There are two different floors with residents, and they’ve become almost two different families. We’re trying to get people together."

There are staffing issues, such as low pay for this region in a highly competitive market. Schaffer had read about the state-run veterans home’s travails in the news and decided he might be able to help, he said. His immediate predecessor was dismissed in November after a patient wandered out of the home into the adjoining University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences building.

House Democratic Leader Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, plans to meet with Schaffer and said he’s very encouraged by Schaffer’s qualifications.

"He has the confidence of a lot of key people, but in the Legislature we’ll all still be keeping a watchful eye," Leding said.

Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayetteville, said he also plans to meet with Schaffer but is familiar with the new director’s background. Lindsey is a member of the personnel subcommittee of the Joint Budget Committee, which reviewed Schaffer’s hiring and his qualifications.

"I was duly impressed," Lindsey said. "Hopefully, he’s exactly what we need to give our veterans the care they deserve."

Before Schaffer arrived, the Veteran’s Department had acknowledged in statements that the staff had become reluctant to report problems. This was after the matter involving the broken arm came to light.

"I can look you straight in the eye and tell you that will never happen again," Schaffer said. When the staff’s standard of daily care is this good and the tracking tools are this extensive, the home’s past troubles can only be attributed to a lack of hands-on management, Schaffer said.

Sarah Robinson, Schaffer’s predecessor, declined comment when contacted by telephone. Schaffer’s assessment of good day-to-day care is consistent with what at least one family of a resident saw.

Allen F. Baker was the father of Judy Carney of Rogers and a resident of the Fayetteville home for two years before his death in October 2012 at the age of 95. He lived there during the height of the home’s publicized problems. Schaffer’s description of excellent day-to-day care at the home is consistent with her experience, Carney said in a telephone interview Thursday.

"Dad had a private room that was always clean," Carney said. "The staff was very friendly and, as far as medically, I never witnessed any problems. He was always taken care of, and the staff was always ‘Johnny on the spot.’ They paid a lot of attention to my dad, but he did have all of his faculties. He could tell them what he needed."

Family would visit Baker at least two times a week throughout his stay. If anything had been wrong, her father would have spoken up, Carney said. "He did not like the food," she said.