Regional News in Review – March 2015

Construction waste is cited Veterans with disabilities are blowing the whistle on waste by the Veterans Administration (VA) at the […]

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Construction waste is cited

Veterans with disabilities are blowing the whistle on waste by the Veterans Administration (VA) at the campus of the St. Cloud VA Medical Center. As part of the $90 million project, new buildings are going up and old ones are being remodeled. Nearly $90 million are being put into projects to help veterans. But an investigation showed that some of the work is taking years to complete, driving costs through the roof.

Ryan Preusser, a disabled veteran and construction company owner, is one of the people expressing concerns about the project. “The millions and millions of dollars wasted there in a year on construction projects is ridiculous,” he said.

One of Preusser’s projects was to build an addition to the audiology department. The project was originally supposed to take a little more than a year and it was started in 2011. After his workers broke ground and started building, they shut down for months. He said the VA’s project managers were slow to order new sound booths. The addition was finally completed in the spring of 2014. Delays cost his firm more than $200,000, and it took a heavy toll on the business and his health. He had to sell off equipment to stay afloat

while waiting to hear if the VA would reimburse him for the additional expenses he incurred. That stress is compounding the PTSD he suffers from the Iraq war.

Fox 9 reporters obtained information through the Freedom of Information Act, which showed that contractors have expressed unhappiness with senior VA management, blaming them for unnecessary project delays and additional expenses that have some of their companies teetering on bankruptcy. Problems include remodeled nursing home rooms that had to be revamped again because the VA’s original design failed to account for the size of new beds. Bathrooms with freshly installed tile floors were ripped out and redone when a tripping hazard was found. Contractors blame the VA for poor designs, while the VA blames workers. The VA did a survey of construction firms last year. Much of the feedback was negative.

VA management in St. Cloud declined to do an interview with Fox 9.

The VA did state that: “We do not purposely seek to delay projects or cause the price to increase given the age of the infrastructure … unforeseen site conditions are inevitable.” (Source: KMSP-TV)

Trial reveals hospital woes

A trial centering on Minnesota’s sex offender treatment facilities a state treatment center continued in U.S. District County throughout February. A federal class-action lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) included testimony from a number of facility residents.

Residents are claiming the program doesn’t offer genuine treatment or a realistic path to release back into the community. Residents of the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program have testified that they are penalized for what are sometimes minor rule violations. Some residents have testified that they feel their stays are prolonged unnecessarily and that they will never be released.

Program facilities are in Moose Lake and St. Peter.

State officials have challenged those claims and defended the program and its practices, and said that there is a focus on helping residents succeed in treatment and gain release.

Last year a court-appointed panel concluded that the residents were often moved back into treatment for behavior not related to their sexual offenses.

Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed making more than $11 million for additional improvements, including moving about 50 residents to less restrictive settings in the community and doing more reviews to determine when residents are ready for release. (Source: Star Tribune)

Shutdown causes woes for clients

A Winona home health care agency that was supposed to shut its doors March 1 pushed that date to mid-February. That causes problems for its clients, and some had to scramble to find care.

Quality Living Home Health Care CEO Gary Poblocki indicated the clinic was forced to close due to small reimbursement payments from the state.

Families said the lack of notice caused problems. “My husband has lewy body dementia and Parkinsonism, and we’ve had three girls working for us for going on six months now,” Joan Gaworski told KTTC-TV.

“Kenny can’t walk so we would get him up in the lift to move him from his bed to a reclining chair, and without us to be there to move him around he’s bedridden,” said Jordan Skordahl. She worked for the Gaworksi family through Quality Living Home Healthcare.

“An apology would have gone a long way with me, but that’s immoral and unethical in my book,” said Matt Gaworski, Kenny’s son.

The company has claimed it gave adequate notice but employees and clients disagreed. Some workers said they were texted and told the company was shutting down immediately February 19. (Source: KTTC-TV)

Parents criticize Fargo business

The Fargo Sky Zone, which offers trampolines and other features for children’s play, has been the focus of criticism by some parents. Parents of children with disabilities have claimed they weren’t offered proper accommodations by the business. They have taken their fight to social media.

One woman posted on Facebook about a recent incident where the facility would not let a mother jump on the same trampoline as her child. The child has disabilities and couldn’t jump alone.

Sky Zone staff responded by saying that they did tell the woman that there are dangers in having more than one person on a trampoline at a time. That precaution applies to older children. Parents are allowed to jump with toddlers ages five and under at set times on two days a week.

Bruce Karevold, Sky Zone co-owner, said “Any time you have two people on a trampoline there’s the possibility that one of them could get bounced in the wrong direction or get stepped on or pushed over.”

Staff said there is a facility rule against such trampoline use and that it must be enforced across the board. That comment hasn’t mollified some families.

Sky Zone owners say they regularly make time to allow children with disabilities to play at the facility. No formal complaints have been filed. (Source: WDAY-TV)

Woman enjoys new ramp

Crowdfunding and volunteer crews recently helped a St. Paul woman with a project that will increase her independence. Deb Blakeway and her dog Madison now can use a ramp from her front door to the sidewalk. Blakeway, who is a dog trainer and shows dogs, is using a wheelchair after having several back surgeries. Without a ramp, she couldn’t get out of her home to get to physical therapy or even run errands. She also had to send Madison away to live with friends.

Rebuilding Together Twin Cities got the ball rolling and organized the project, while Barn Raising set up a web page to raise $2,600 to complete the project. People learned about the ramp on social media and helped raise money. A crew from Rebuilding Together Twin Cities and a number of volunteers got the construction ball rolling, and students from St. Paul College’s building trades program finished things up.

Blakeway tried out her new ramp with a handful of builders still there, and was very impressed. “It’s nice. They did a really nice job,” she said. The ramp has a safety gate and a wider portion near the door so she can turn her wheelchair around to get in and out of the house. (Source: KARE 11)

Man survives fishing accident

A 35-year-old Long Lake man survived a plunge through the ice of Lake Minnetonka February 25 by sheer force of will, according to authorities. Ryan Richard Neslund, who is paraplegic, was driving his new specially equipped pickup truck out to an ice fishing house when the ice gave way. The truck fell through and Neslund and his dog Balou went into the water.

Neslund was able to get out of the truck cab and onto the ice, calling for help. The dog didn’t survive Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department deputies responded to a report of someone calling for help on the lake. Neslund was found about 500 feet from shore.

Lt. Kent Vnuk of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, said authorities received a call around 8:18 p.m. about a man who was yelling for help on the ice.

Vnuk said they found Neslund about 500 yards off the shore. Vnuk said he was yelling that he was frozen and unable to move but he had made it out of the water. Neslund was pulled safely from the ice after a water rescue was initiated. He was found at after 8 p.m., with darkness and cold weather complicating the rescuer.

“He had a tenacious will to live,” Vnuk told KARE 11 News. “Even if you don’t have a disability, to be able to pull yourself out of the ice with water-logged clothes, I mean, you have to be very determined.”  (Source: KARE 11)

Mental health court praised

Hennepin County’s mental court has been held up as a model for the rest of the state and nation. About 200 defendants go through the court each year.

The court provides help for people with mental illness who are in the criminal justice system. For many people it has become their first time of receiving comprehensive services as well as encouragement from judges and probation officers. The court is voluntary and is accessed via referral from attorneys or probation officers. Once a defendant is admitted, he or she can get help with housing, employment and therapy. There is assistance for persons needing help managing their medication, and in staying away from alcohol and illegal drugs. Legal issues wait until the defendant’ personal life is stabilized.

Potential participants must have a mental illness, a traumatic brain injury or a developmental disability. People are screened before being referred to the court. Sex offenders aren’t eligible for the court. Most cases involve theft or property damage.

The court is run by Judge Kerry Meyer. It began in 2003 and is in session two days a week. Supporters said if more funding could be found to add staff, it could operate all week long, due to demand.

Smaller mental health courts have been developed in Ramsey and St. Louis counties. (Source: Star Tribune)

Transit vehicles to change

Complaints about the Twin Cities’ newer light rail vehicles have been heard. The Metropolitan Council voted unanimously February 11 to amend its transit-ways guidelines to include update light rail vehicle standards. Changes will be made of areas of train cars that are marked for passengers who use wheelchairs or scooters.

The policy changes, which were recommended by disability advocates and council committees, address concerns heard several months ago when new vehicles were added for Blue Line and Green Line light rail. The new vehicles’ seating arrangements make it more difficult for people in wheelchairs or scooters to find adequate space. The seating configuration also poses challenges for anyone riding with a companion or personal care attendant.

The amended guidelines state that all vehicles must meet or exceed the standards established in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and must also include: two dedicated spaces for wheelchair users in each car and seating for a companion adjacent to each of the wheelchair-dedicated spaces.

In 2012, the council adopted Regional Transitway Guidelines, which serves as standards in the design.

The transit-way guidlines were set after extensive internal discussion and public input. The guidelines are to provide technical guidance, based in best practices, that supports the development and operation of transitways in a way that is consistent, equitable and efficient, and delivers an effective, integrated and userfriendly transit system throughout the Twin Cities region.

While previous guidelines called for ADA compliance, that wasn’t seen as addressing all of the concerns raised. In 2014, state law was passed that states that by January 1, 2015, the Metropolitan Council shall adopt and may then amend standards for the design of light rail vehicles that are reasonably necessary to provide access for, and to protect the health and safety of, persons who use the service. All vehicles purchased after that date must meet the new standards. (Source: Access Press staff)

Jobs lost in New Ulm area

Mankato-based MRCI WorkSource is looking to find new jobs for about 100 New Ulm workers as a result of a contract termination that takes effect this month. Mondelez International, formerly Kraft Foods, announced it will be terminating its contract with MCRI.

MRCI provides work for people with disabilities. The nonprofit worked with Mondelez International for about nine years. The nonprofit learned of the discontinuation in February, said MRCI CEO Brian Benshoof.

Mondelez outsourced cheese and cracker snack kits to MRCI’s New Ulm facility. Workers packaged kits into cartons and got products ready to be shipped to retailers.

Benshoof said MRCI had a good working relationship with Mondelez. “It’s disappointing for us and difficult,” he said. “With short notice, it’s hard to replace work immediately.”

MRCI is looking for other contracts and employment opportunities, Benshoof said, adding that he didn’t want to speculate about possible layoffs at hype new Ulm facility. “This one has a big impact because there’s a lot of people working on that particular job.”

“We’re going to work our hardest to make sure we don’t have to do anything in terms of layoffs,” Benshoof said. “We want to keep people working. That’s our goal.”  (Source: Mankato Free Press)

Payment resolves discrimination claim

The Bank of America must pay more than $150,000 to settle with a Minnesota woman. Kathryn Letourneau of North Branch said the bank discriminated against her based on her disability. She has had severe hearing loss since birth and relies on hearing aids.

“Without my hearing aids, I can hear the presence of sound. I can hear loud noises. I can hear some loud speech sound. But I could never tell you what it is,” Letourneau told KSTP-TV.

When she needed to modify her home mortgage loan, phone conversations weren’t an option for Letourneau. “Especially when you’re dealing with important information like your financing, I don’t want to be doing the, ‘What did you say?’ ‘I couldn’t hear that. Could you say that again?’” she said.

She asked Bank of America to correspond via email and the bank initially agreed to do so. But that stopped and the bank staff didn’t respond to faxes or emails. Then she received a letter stating that she’d been denied the modification because the bank didn’t have all of the information needed.

Letourneau’s husband then called the bank and was told that emails were against bank policy.

“The guy said, ‘I was told by my supervisor not to email you anymore. That’s not our policy.’ And so my husband was like, ‘Well, then, our policy is that we’re going to fight this,’” Letourneau said. A complaint was filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which found probable cause of discrimination based on her disability.

State officials also found that Bank of America denied Letourneau service based on the bank’s “refusal to reasonably accommodate” her by communicating via email. A state memorandum explained that Bank of America had concerns about the sensitive nature of paperwork that had to be sent via email. The family did get the loan modification.

As part of the settlement, the bank isn’t admitting wrong doing. Bank of American spokesperson Diane Wagner stated.

“Bank of America does not discriminate and complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws prohibiting disability discrimination. We provide equal access to company facilities, services and employment opportunities and treat all employees with disabilities with dignity and respect and offer the same access to opportunities afforded those without disabilities.”

In addition to laying out the details of the $155,000 in payments to Letourneau, her attorney, and the state, the settlement also requires Bank of America to provide additional training to its staff regarding the ADA, and to always make email an option for the hearing-impaired.

Letourneau works with children who have hearing loss, so she said the settlement was extremely important. “There’s not a much worse feeling than feeling inadequate about something you can’t control. I can’t control the fact that I have hearing loss, and they made me feel like it was my fault,” she said. Her message to others? “Don’t let other people make you feel you’re less, because you can’t hear,” Letourneau said. (Source: KSTP-TV)

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