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Veterans in respite program relocated

| Sunday, March 2, 2014, 8:48 p.m.

The VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System relocated a short-term care program used by dozens of Western Pennsylvania veterans and their families, moving respite services from the H.J. Heinz campus in O'Hara to about 16 nursing homes across the region.

VA officials would not say how long the services might remain in the nursing homes. In a written statement, they said plumbing and construction projects at the Heinz campus prompted the shift.

The respite program houses veterans with special needs for several days at a time, relieving family members who otherwise care for the patients in their homes. Caregiver Cathy Shook of Plum said the nursing home move is a disappointment to her husband, James Shook, 68, a Vietnam War veteran and Alzheimer's disease patient who receives occasional VA respite care.

“They want to talk war stories and play cards and do what they do at these centers, not be put in a nursing home where you're among people who are moaning. It's just sad,” Cathy Shook said.

She said she cut short his recent stay in a Murrysville nursing home where the Pittsburgh VA directed him. He became depressed in the facility, part of the Texas-based network of Golden Living senior homes.

Federal privacy laws prevent Golden Living from discussing the care of individual patients, said Melissa Sullivan, the facility administrator at the Murrysville home. She confirmed the home accepts VA referrals under an active contract.

“We strive every day to meet the needs of our patients and residents through integrity and accountability and focusing on excellence and quality. The safety, care and well-being of our patients always comes first,” Sullivan said.

Pittsburgh VA officials said they guide respite care patients only to licensed homes in “our established community networks.”

Switching patients to nursing homes “has supported our ability to provide caregivers with the temporary relief they deserve in order to reduce caregiver stress, by providing 24/7 care to their loved ones closer to their homes,” VA officials said in the statement released by spokesman William Leuthold.

The average stay in nursing homes in these cases has been 10 to 14 days, they said.

Leuthold said the community living center at the VA Heinz campus stopped referrals in May for inpatient respite admissions. The Pittsburgh VA continued to serve 24 veterans who had scheduled respite stays through the end of 2013. The VA said it received no complaints since May about respite care stays redirected to the nursing homes.

Construction and plumbing work at the living center diverted 52 respite care patients into the nursing homes since May, according to the Pittsburgh VA.

VA officials did not respond to questions about when that work might be completed, or how the nursing homes are compensated.

Cathy Shook said she would push lawmakers for an explanation.

“What happens to respite patients? It's not fair to them to be put in nursing homes,” she said.

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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