Republicans criticize plan to withdraw National Guard from veterans home; Evers says hands are tied

Wisconsin National Guard Troops Train To Help Address Skilled Nursing Facility Staff Shortage
WISC-TV/Channel3000.

UNION GROVE, Wis. — Two Republican lawmakers from southeastern Wisconsin are urging Democratic Gov. Tony Evers not to withdraw Wisconsin National Guard troops from a veterans home in Union Grove without a more concrete plan to address long-standing staffing issues, but the governor’s office says his powers are limited due to restrictions on pandemic-related emergency orders.

The letter from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) stressed the staffing shortage that prompted the guard’s deployment to the Veterans Home at Union Grove has not eased. The lawmakers acknowledge staffing the facility with guard members is not a long-term fix, but called on Evers to rescind the withdrawal if no transition plan is put in place.

“We were pleased to see the WNG called to assist the Veterans Home at Union Grove as a necessary stopgap to ensure our veterans received needed support and to temporarily assist in alleviating some of the staffing issues at the home,” the lawmakers wrote. “However, you have had more than enough time to prepare for their departure and pulling them out now without a backup plan is dangerously short-sighted and will have potentially dire consequences for the members living there and those that staff them.”

The staffing issues, they said, pre-dated the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite that, they argued they “have seen no significant progress in dealing with this problem.”

The guard has been assisting the Union Grove facility — as well as several other state-run facilities — since November 8, Maj. Joe Travato said. Sixteen guard members remain at the facility and will continue working there until May 15.

Travato said the guard’s presence “was always intended to be temporary in nature to assist the state in addressing the Omicron variant surge while simultaneously helping to alleviate staffing shortages at a critical time.”

In an email to News 3 Now Tuesday afternoon, Evers’ communications director Britt Cudaback said the governor is barred from being able to declare a public health emergency — a move that would allow him to deploy the guard for pandemic response efforts — after the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled last year he overstepped his emergency powers by declaring multiple emergency orders for a single pandemic.

The guard has been able to act under federal activation, but Cudaback said the Biden Administration gave states a 60-day notice on Tuesday that the federal public health emergency under which the guard is acting could end.

“The Wisconsin National Guard’s current activation is under federal Title 32 status for pandemic response, which means the cost of activation is 100 percent federally funded but must be tied to the pandemic response mission. Under this activation, we cannot use the Guard to simply provide additional workforce support that is unrelated to the direct impact of the pandemic, including staffing needs that are no longer being drive [sic] by surges in COVID,” she wrote.

The guard, she added, “has been a critical partner in our state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and remains under the longest activation in our state’s history.”

“Simply put, Wisconsin would not be in the position we are today without the extraordinary efforts of our members in the Wisconsin National Guard over these past two-plus years,” Cudaback said.

Wanggaard rejected that argument Monday evening.

“This is crap,” he tweeted. “The authorization for the WI National Guard troops gives (Evers) until July 1. 6 more weeks. Plenty of time for him to have a plan.”

Colleen Flaherty, the communications director for the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, said her agency has been working since 2019 to find solutions to the staffing shortages.

“In the face of on-going and significant national industry-wide shortage of nursing staff, particularly certified nursing assistants (CNAs) that existed before the pandemic, Union Grove in 2019 began deliberate problem-solving with our nursing home administrators, human resources team, and a staff work group; that group collaboratively developed action items to improve staff retention, communication, morale, and recruitment efforts,” Flaherty wrote in an email.

She also touted the agency’s moves to pay staff members sign-on bonuses, increase base pay and offer COVID-19 hazard pay for direct care staff members as ways it has tried to address the issue.

RELATED: Evers deploys Wisconsin National Guard members to nursing homes to help with staffing shortages

In January, Evers announced the state would train and deploy more than 200 Guard members to health care facilities across Wisconsin amid a surge in COVID-19 cases. Multiple waves of troops received certified nursing assistant training thanks to a partnership with Madison College.