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Thursday, January 2, 2020

Rhode Island digs into dead war vets’ assets to reduce its budget deficit

State needs to get informed consent before grabbing vets’ estates
By Cynthia Owens in UpRiseRI

Image result for Rhode Island elderly veteransResidents at the state veterans’ home in Bristol, Rhode Island could unwittingly have their estate assets pass to the home at their death instead of to their family members.

State laws – including Rhode Island’s – all provide for the passing of decedents’ estates to beneficiaries named in their wills or to their closest relatives if no valid wills exist.

Rhode Island law, however, carves out an exception for estates belonging to its veterans’ home residents who die without wills.

Instead of their estates passing to family members, those assets become the property of the state, which can be used for payment of the home’s high operating expenses.

Label me a stickler for propriety, but I think that such an exception should be explicitly and conspicuously disclosed to all veterans applying for admission to the home, with handwritten confirmation of their understanding and acknowledgment of same.

Mere mention of the exclusion while elderly and infirm veterans and/or their family members are presented with a multitude of documents to sign during the admissions process should not be deemed adequate disclosure.

Another step in the right direction would be for the home to provide veterans with a list of resources for pro bono legal services to obtain wills.

In the wake of local news media coverage that the state home has been millions of dollars over budget since the opening of its new facility in 2017, state officials have been scrambling to lower the deficit through various means – some of which affects the quality of care for the residents there.

Among the reported deficit-reducing efforts are:

  • switching to an acuity model of nurse staffing (to reduce the number of staff in an already-deficient nursing pool), the efficacy of which is not readily verifiable;
  • requiring insurance coverage and/or out-of-pocket payments for in-house physical and occupational therapy services, which some residents in need of ongoing therapy have complained they cannot afford and whose medical conditions make traveling to, and spending hours at, the VA medical center for free therapy so arduous as to be counterproductive; and
  • a plan to shave $75,000 off the home’s janitorial services contract, which tripled from $400,000 in the previous 2017-18 fiscal year to $1.2 million for the 2018-19 fiscal year.
But after all the chipping away, the last news report I checked said the home was still about $2 million in the red.

No worries, though. Governor Gina Raimondo has asked the head of the Rhode Island National Guard, Brigadier General Christopher Callahan – photographed and videoed with the Governor and Director Kasim Yarn of the state’s Office of Veterans Affairs (which oversees the veterans home) on its website home page – to conduct a review of the home’s operations and financial management. 

Why bother to have a third-party audit team, unconnected to veterans affairs matters, handling the review? Transparency is so pesky and overrated.

If officials succeed in acquiring the home’s deceased war veterans’ estate assets, not only will the state continue to owe a debt of gratitude to these individuals for their military service, but it will also be beholden to them for their estates being used to reduce the home’s unruly deficit spending.

Cynthia Owens was born and raised in Bristol, Rhode Island (where her family members still reside), and graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law. She began her law practice straight out of law school with Hunton & Williams, a Richmond, Virginia law firm, then moved to Virginia Beach and worked at another large firm. Married to a military veteran, today Owens runs a pro bono law practice for military veterans.