Spotlight Exclusives

No Place Like Home

Evey Weisblat Evey Weisblat, posted on

The state of North Carolina abruptly closed a veterans home in Fayetteville this February. Officials knew for years that the facility had moisture issues, among other problems, but North Carolina legislators say they were kept in the dark. This story is co-published with The Assembly and Fayetteville CityView as part of a new content partnership with Spotlight.

Two days before Thanksgiving, Lt. Gen. Walter Gaskin visited the North Carolina State Veterans Home in Fayetteville to make a shocking announcement.

Gaskin, a former NATO military leader who was secretary of the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA), said the 85 aging veterans living there, including many with disabilities and dementia, would have a matter of weeks to find new homes. The home would shut its doors on February 1, apparently never to be reopened.

The DMVA said when it made the decision public a few weeks later that the building—which was only 25 years old—had “significant repair needs and structural deficiencies” for which there was “no immediate solution or long-term fix.”

Family members struggled to find suitable new homes for their elderly relatives near this city of 25,000 veterans. Several residents suffered declining health in the days leading up to and following the move—some died after moving out. Employees were left with just a few pay periods to find new work. State lawmakers said they were blindsided.

Since then, inspection reports obtained by the state legislature have revealed that the DMVA knew for years that the building needed significant repairs, and the agency knew for a year that mold threatened residents’ health. Officials told CityView early this year that the facility didn’t have a mold problem—even though residents and caregivers said the DMVA had explicitly cited mold as the reason for the closure during the department’s initial announcement.

Adding to the confusion, during legislative oversight committee meetings early this year, the DMVA backtracked on previous statements about the building’s irreparable state. DMVA Deputy Secretary Brian Pierce told state legislators in February that the department hadn’t determined whether the building was beyond repair.

“We probably poorly communicated it,” Pierce said of past messages to the legislature. He said the building’s future was yet to be determined but “a likely course of action is [to] repair and renovate if certain site conditions can be addressed.” A February reportshowed the DMVA’s contractor, Raymond, had begun pursuing a “rehabilitation project.”

Gov. Roy Cooper announced in late March that Gaskin would retire from the DMVA, effective days later. Now, six months after the closure was announced, former residents and their families remain frustrated, and lawmakers say they want answers about what went wrong and how the department plans to replace the Fayetteville home.

The North Carolina State Veteran’s Home sits resident-free on Monday, May 13, 2024. Photo: Tony Wooten

“I personally have inspected the North Carolina veterans home in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in the last 30 days,” state Sen. Tom McInnis, a Republican who represents part of Cumberland County, told CityView. “And what I found in regards to maintenance, upkeep, and management of that facility is deplorable.”

The DMVA said it and its partner in operating the care home, for-profit healthcare company PruittHealth, provided adequate maintenance and repairs.

“DMVA along with PruittHealth, provide maintenance for the State Veterans Homes and are proud of the consistent high-quality ratings these facilities have earned for their care of our veterans,” DMVA director of communications Tammy Martin said in a statement. “DMVA has been and continues to be committed to serving the Fayetteville community and is assessing the best path forward for the Fayetteville Home.”

‘Immediate Danger’

At the bottom of the winding hill from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fayetteville, a row of orange cones blocks the entrance to the state veterans home parking lot. A transport shuttle, the size of a mini school bus, is the sole car parked there. On a sunny day in mid-April, the building looks almost new.

But inside, it’s another story. According to the DMVA’s latest report on the condition of the home, there are a plethora of health and safety hazards: problems with the roof, poor air quality, inadequate stormwater drainage, a faulty HVAC system, insufficient fire safety measures, questionable plumbing, and holes in the walls and ceiling.

Fayetteville is home to the largest military institution in the country, Fort Liberty, so it was an obvious choice for the first of five state-owned nursing homes for veterans in North Carolina. The homes provide aging veterans with lodging and round-the-clock care, including in-patient medical treatment and rehabilitation services, with costs that can be reduced with Veterans Affairs and Social Security benefits. The Fayetteville site opened in 1999.

The DMVA knew that it had problems with water intrusion in the facility as early as 2018, according to the State Construction Office. In November of that year, inspectors with the office indicated a moisture problem with the building, noting part of the roof “leaks badly and needs replacement.”

Pierce told legislators in February that the DMVA contracted with Raymond, a national engineering firm, to inspect the building in 2021 and examine potential water issues at the facility. Pierce said the DMVA had “sent a letter forward to declare an emergency at the building” in April 2021, after determining the need for a major roof repair. In August 2022, the State Construction Office found $3.1 million in structural deficiencies in the building and recommended replacing the roof.

Samuel Richardson, a former resident of the state veterans home, said he found mold growth in his shower and had to temporarily vacate his room for cleaning several months before the facility closed. Richardson also experienced unexplained symptoms that worsened over time, he said, including headaches, blurry vision, sinus issues, and throat discomfort—all of which can be signs of mold toxicity. CityView also reported that industrial air filters had been placed in the facility.

When residents were told the building was closing, Richardson said he told DMVA representatives and PruittHealth management that they “threw us under the bus” by not dealing with the mold problem earlier.

“If it was mold in the school for the children,” he recalled telling them, “they would have been moved out.”

But when the DMVA publicly announced it was closing the facility, it said the problems stemmed from the site’s natural topography, as it was in an area “conducive to water intrusion to the building and ponding water on the site.” The department said it would cost “more than $20 million” to repair the home, comparing it to the $27 million construction cost of a new state veterans home in Kernersville. A February assessment from the State Construction Office determined the repairs to the Fayetteville state veterans home would cost about $17.6 million.

Floyd Oxendine shares his past challenges as an NC State Veteran’s Home resident during an interview at the Carrolton of Fayetteville Health Care Facility on Monday, May 13, 2024. Photo: Tony Wooten

Asked by CityView on January 22, the DMVA’s Martin said a test in November found “no fungal growth” in the home. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services also said it did not deem the state veterans home in Fayetteville a public safety threat at the time of its closing.

Then, state legislators on the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on General Government asked for assessments and repair plans conducted by the DMVA’s contractor, Raymond, dating back to April 2021. Those reports showed that in early 2023, Raymond found mold posed an “immediate danger to occupant life safety, health and welfare.”

The report also confirmed the presence of black mold in the building, specifically Stachybotrys and Chaetomium. Both release mycotoxins, toxic compounds that are naturally produced by certain types of fungi.

“These molds can potentially indicate an ongoing moisture issue and are also known to be potentially allergenic and capable of producing mycotoxins, increasing the risk to sensitive individuals,” the assessment authors wrote. “In addition, there is typically a zero tolerance for the presence of Stachybotrys and Chaetomium molds in the interior environment.”

The DMVA did not immediately respond to CityView’s request for comment on the discrepancy.

Who’s to Blame?

During inquiry meetings led by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on General Government in January and February, lawmakers said the agency closed the home without consulting the General Assembly or even disclosing the issues with the building beforehand.

“That building should last at least 50 years, and somebody has to take responsibility for this thing,” state Sen. Dean Proctor, a Republican who also serves as vice chair of the committee, said at the January 27 meeting. “And we can talk about it all day, but nobody’s said really what happened. Why is it not in livable condition now? I think that’s just poor management somewhere.”

McInnis, the state senator who represents parts of Cumberland County, said “without question” the General Assembly was misled about the state of the home.

The DMVA did not immediately respond to CityView’s request for comment on this claim. However, in response to state legislators’ follow-up questions about the home’s closure, the DMVA said it was “not aware of a mechanism to update them on day-to-day operations of State Veterans Homes.”

In mid-May, boxes were stacked in hallways and lobbies of the state veterans home, now empty of occupants. Photo: Tony Wooten

With legislators expressing increasing frustration with the agency, DMVA Secretary Gaskin was not on good terms with state politicians. Some lawmakers criticized him for not attending the two committee meetings about the home, with other department officials taking questions instead. The DMVA said it was “normal protocol” for secretaries not to attend legislative briefings, describing Gaskin’s absence as “not an unusual occurrence.”

State Sen. W. Ted Alexander, co-chair of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on General Government, said at a February 27 meeting that Gaskin’s absence was concerning because the secretary had told lawmakers the DMVA could make decisions about the building on its own. Gaskin had said “he was going to go ahead and build a new building, because he had the authority under the [State Veterans Home] Trust Fund,” Alexander said.

“Do they have the ability to make this decision on their own, to start off on a new building and close this one down, or does that decision have to reside with at least the approval and consultation with the General Assembly?” Alexander asked.

The closure of the state veterans home was not the first time Gaskin had encountered controversy as DMVA secretary. In July 2023, ABC11 reportedthat Gaskin had vouched for a marine who was caught stealing valor—and then falsely said he had served with the discredited veteran.

Major veterans advocacy groups were furious with Gaskin over the Fayetteville home’s closure.

Jay Wood, the commander of the North Carolina Veterans Council, told CityView that the DMVA had “tried to do everything they can to keep us from participating” in discussions about the closure.

“I thought we had a very approachable relationship, but for some reason, in my opinion, he chose this topic to become adversarial over, and I do not fully understand it,” Wood said in mid-April. “We were shunned and excluded.”

Gaskin didn’t respond to requests for comment. In an email from Gaskin to the North Carolina Veterans Council, shared with CityView in late January, Gaskin described prior communications with Wood as “containing misinformation” and unsubstantiated claims.

“One would hope that your service and position with such a needed organization, regardless of your personal disagreement with a decision, would negate disparaging attempts on NCDMVA’s commitment to veterans,” Gaskin wrote.

On March 28, Cooper announced Gaskin would step down and be replaced by former state  Rep. Grier Martin, who at the time was the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs. Cooper’s office wouldn’t say whether Gaskin’s handling of the Fayetteville home’s closing was connected to him stepping down, describing his departure as a retirement “after years of strong service to North Carolina.”

“The timing certainly raises suspicion,” state Rep. Charles Smith, who represents Cumberland County, told CityView.

State Sen. Val Applewhite, a Cumberland County representative and a U.S. Air Force veteran, told CityView the news of Gaskin’s departure and replacement did not come as a shock to her, given the circumstances.

“I was not surprised based on the dialogue that was happening with the other senators and people that were on that—I knew that they were not happy,” Applewhite said. “But you cannot put all the blame on one person.”

Life or Money

McInnis and some former residents said PruittHealth, the nursing home chain that ran the Fayetteville facility on behalf of the DMVA, should bear some responsibility for its abrupt closure.

PruittHealth has dozens of facilities throughout the Southeast. The company’s subsidiary, PruittHealth Veteran Services – North Carolina Inc., has managed the state veterans homes since the facilities were established. Under the current, five-year contract, PruittHealth takes home 10% of the revenue generated from North Carolina’s state veteran homes, North Carolina Health News reported in 2021 when PruittHealth won the bid.

PruittHealth declined requests for comment on the closure of the state veterans home in Fayetteville.

James Boswell discusses his time at the NC State Veteran’s Home during an interview from his residence at the Carrolton of Fayetteville Health Care Facility on Monday, May 13, 2024. Photo: Tony Wooten

Former residents and a former maintenance employee said they complained about conditions at the facility before it closed.

During his time at the Fayetteville home from 2016 to 2020, John McGee, a retired military police officer for the U.S. Air Force, said he confronted PruittHealth management about issues ranging from residents not being cleaned properly to building leaks to medication problems. In 2020, after years of questioning conditions and managerial decisions in the home, McGee received a discharge notice saying that his “needs cannot be met in this facility.”

McGee believes it was retaliation for criticizing the facility management. “I presented a danger to them because I could figure out what was going on,” McGee said.

Another former resident, U.S. Army veteran Floyd Oxendine, said that after residents were told about black mold in the facility on November 21, he requested a mold exposure test, but management told him it was too expensive. He said he had been on a breathing machine when this happened, which he still uses.

“I said, ‘What’s important to you, our life or money?’” Oxendine recalled telling a PruittHealth manager. “Y’all done this to us—y’all lied to us, told us lies.”

A former maintenance employee for PruittHealth, who requested anonymity for privacy reasons, said he was fired in 2021 from the home after raising concerns about mold in the building and insufficient COVID-19 protective measures. The former employee said his task was to clean out extensive mold in a section of the building that was being renovated, but he said he wasn’t given adequate protective equipment. He said he informed PruittHealth administrator Whitney Bell and other managers, but “they didn’t want to do nothing about it,” he said. “They’d rather terminate me to shut my mouth up.”

Bell declined to comment on all state veterans home questions and referred them to the DMVA. The DMVA did not immediately respond.

What’s next

Oxendine, who has a disability, said he has also faced challenges at his new home. One issue, he said, is infrequent sheet changes—he injured himself recently when trying to change the sheets himself. He said he has also had some conflicts with other residents at his new home.

“It was wrong,” Oxendine said. “It was wrong the way we were done. The workers, they had jobs, [the state] talking like, ‘We helped you.’ I don’t know if they helped a lot of them.”

U.S. Army veteran and former veterans home resident James Boswell said he has experienced declining health since leaving the state veterans home and moving to a nearby nursing home. He was in the hospital for two weeks in April, after initially having had trouble getting transportation to the VA Medical Center, which is next to the former state veterans home.

Cumberland County’s state lawmakers have said they will push for a veterans home in Fayetteville, either in the old building or a new one. Photo: Tony Wooten

Boswell misses the state veterans home, where he said he received a higher standard of care from well-trained staff.

“The way they work was a lot better,” Boswell said. “It’s a lot of different things.”

Cumberland County’s state lawmakers have said they will push for a veterans home in Fayetteville, either in the old building or a new one if the original facility cannot be saved.

State Rep. Diane Wheatley, who represents Fayetteville, said she wants a guarantee from Martin, the new DMVA secretary, that a permanent home will open in Cumberland County.

“I wrote a letter to the previous general,” Wheatley told CityView in late April. “I got a voice assurance, but I’m wanting more than that. So we’re going to continue to work on this, and we’re going to work on it diligently for the veterans that need this service.”

On April 29, McInnis, Wheatley, and state Sen. Michael Lazzara sent a letterto Martin and the DMVA. In the letter, the lawmakers asked for a “full forensic audit” of the Fayetteville state veterans home building, covering the facility’s design, construction, maintenance, operations, inspections, regulatory failures, and any issues that could lead to its closure. McInnis said in mid-May that the lawmakers planned to meet with the department to go over the request.

At a meeting of the Military and Veterans Affairs House Standing Committee on May 2, new DMVA Secretary Martin said it was “too early to say” whether the state veterans home in Fayetteville would be rebuilt, renovated, or face another fate. He positioned himself as the newcomer, eager to explore all options.

“The advantage of having someone coming in who’s fairly ignorant on those issues is that we’ve got a clean slate,” Martin said. “So I’m coming in—what’s been done has been done—I am looking at it with fresh eyes to figure out what decision makes the most sense for the veterans of North Carolina.”

Martin said he wanted to take things slow when deciding on the future of the home and consult with various experts. He also expressed a desire to visit the home in the near future.

“It’s going to be a long process. Since we’ve got the veterans in good situations right now, I don’t want to rush the decision,” Martin said. “I’m going to take the time that it needs to have conversations with the experts, but also with the various stakeholders.”

McInnis, speaking with urgency, said he was committed to seeing through the investigation into the home’s closing.

“The taxpayers are taking it right on the chin, and there’s something wrong here,” McInnis said. “We’re going to find out what, where the something that’s wrong is, and we’re going to demand accountability from somebody. Somebody is going to be held accountable.”

Evey Weisblat is a reporter at CityView. She has previously worked at papers in central North Carolina, including The Pilot and the Chatham News + Record. Her central beat is government accountability reporting.

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