Concerns about Iowa Veterans Home broadcast at Statehouse

Tensions over the caliber of leadership at the Iowa Veterans Home boiled over Monday, leaving a local state senator to call for the suspension of home’s commandant until the governor can conduct a more formal investigation into the allegations.

Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, said he planned to follow up with the governor’s office following a 2.5-hour Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing at the State Capitol. The meeting detailed widespread accusations that Commandant David Worley and Deputy Director Shauna Callaway erode employee morale and the constant tension pervading the home harms patients’ quality of care.

Several long-time employees of IVH came forward, saying they had personally experienced what they qualified as a culture of fear, humiliation and disrespect and that they knew of many others who would not speak out against Worley for fear of reprisal.

Ken Briggs, representative on the Iowa Mental Health Planning Council, said residents regularly told him that they did not receive meals on time, were bathed infrequently and that they feared for their homes if they spoke out. With tears in their eyes, they told him they were ashamed to be one of the 598 residents at the home, he said.

“It was not a home anymore,” he said. “It was a prison.”

Bill Rakers, former director of recreational activity for 29 years at IVH, said Worley values cost reduction more than he values the well-being of IVH staff. Worley cut several programs, many of which residents enjoy immensely.

Worley countered, saying that leaders often need to make tough managerial decisions and that sometimes what many perceive as a cutback in services is simply a restructuring.

Worley did not acknowledge the attacks that characterized him as a bully who verbally berates, threatens physical harm to and sexually harasses employees. His testimony did little but echo statements he has previously made claiming he values transparency and inviting those who take the allegations seriously to come out to the home and see for themselves the kind of care provided.

Worley also noted the amount of regulations to which the home must adhere.

“I can tell you we follow the rules,” he said.

Col. Todd Jacobus, chair of the Iowa Commission of Veterans Affairs, said Worley is always forthright with him during their meetings. Anytime an issue has arisen, Worley has always had a reasonable explanation why the person made such a claim. However, Jacobus acknowledged that, while his department addresses any concerns brought to it, those concerns do not account for those who, as Worley’s critics claim, refuse to come forward out of fear.

Gov. Terry Branstad gave Worley his support in April but said that his office is reviewing these concerns.

Richard Schrad, retired director of Resident & Family Services, said he is baffled at how Worley still has a job. Worley’s actions go well beyond what is considered appropriate workplace conduct, some of which include regularly punctuating conversations with details about his gun collection and making sexually charged comments to staff members and aggressively degrading remarks to residents.

“Is any of this OK for a top administrator of any company in this day and age?” he said.

Jodi Tymeson, of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, said it has been her experience that IVH has a great staff doing great work. She noted how IVH meets all 158 standards of care quality.

Nearly everyone who spoke said IVH staff do a great job taking care of the veterans, and Worley’s critics said the staff works hard to insulate residents from Worley’s overbearing demeanor.

Worley said he welcomes any examination of his work, and if there is a problem with resident care, he wants to know about.

However, many who commented, including Sodders, also noted a shift to at-will employment as a factor for a lack of people coming forward. He said an employee who is at-will and believes they will be fired as a retaliation would not likely speak out.

Mike Schlesinger, publisher of the Times-Republican, read two letters from people who had been advised not to attend. Their lack of attendance exemplified the culture of fear of which many spoke.

One of the letters read “If I knew this is how I was going to be treated at the end of my life, I never would have served in the military.”

Sen. Daryl Beall, D-Fort Dodge and the chair of Veterans Affairs, said the committee would meet again soon to discuss a recommendation to the governor, perhaps sending the issue to the government oversight committee. Doing nothing, he said, is not an option.

“It still seems to me like we have a problem,” said Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids.