The Arizona Republic (Phoenix)
April 3, 2007 Tuesday
THE ISSUE: ARIZONA STATE VETERAN HOME CRISIS; BAD COMMUNICATION MARS RAPID RESPONSE
A touchstone of political leadership is a simple thing: What do governments do when something goes really, really bad?
There are two modern models. One is the Rudy Giuliani model. In the wake of a crisis, you assess the damage, act fast and hide nothing.
The other model is that of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. You lumber in, worsen matters as much as fix them and keep everyone in the dark about what is going on.
Which of these two models best characterize the response of the Arizona Governor’s Office following the alarming reports about patient neglect at the Arizona State Veteran Home?
As the story unfolds, the incident — and the reaction of the Governor’s Office to that incident — seems to have elements of both.
On Feb. 10, members of Gov. Janet Napolitano’s top staff were alerted of “immediate jeopardy” at the home for about 200 mostly elderly service veterans. The alert came in the form of an e-mail forwarded by Sue Gerard, director of the Department of Health Services, to Napolitano’s co-chief of staff, Alan Stephens, and the governor’s health adviser, January Contreras.
That was soon followed by an e-mail from Napolitano’s spokeswoman, Jeanine L’Ecuyer, whose now-famous first reaction to learning of the incident was “Holy cow. We need data ASAP on the State Veterans Home.”
By that time, state officials already had acted to stabilize the situation at the hospital. Indeed, we know now that DHS inspectors, who arrived unannounced at the home on Feb. 9, had refused to leave until some of the most egregious patient-care violations had been corrected. At some point thereafter, at least four employees of the hospital, including its director, had been fired or had resigned.
It is fair to conclude, then, that members of the governor’s top staff (but not, apparently, the governor herself) were taking some action to ensure that patients were in adequate care. But, clearly, they were treating the matter as something far short of the crisis it quickly became once The Arizona Republic learned of the investigators’ report on the incident, which was reported on March 24.
Indeed, the reactions of the governor’s staff, as well as that of other top state officials, indicate a bizarre roller-coaster of alarm and concern, followed by torpid assurances that all is “routine” and under control. Those are then followed by a virtual blizzard of initiatives by the governor herself once The Republic started investigating — which is about the time Napolitano said she first learned anything at all about the incident.
The governor and her staff insist Napolitano knew nothing of the veterans home incidents until March 23, the day The Republic’s Jodie Snyder contacted her about the DHS report on the incident — a report that had been delivered to the governor’s health-services adviser, Contreras, on March 16.
According to the governor’s chief of staff, Dennis Burke, the governor’s staff did not alert Napolitano about the veterans-home incident because they were assured by her agency directors in the field that matters were well in hand.
The now-departed state director of veterans’ services, Patrick Chorpenning, had not even informed the Governor’s Office that he had released several employees as a result of the affair, according to Burke.
As for the DHS report on the incident, Burke said Contreras did not begin to examine the report until the week of March 19 … and, even then, not until later in the week. This is curious behavior.
The nonplussed reaction of the governor’s staff to the veterans home incident suggests the staff has no political sense. And, in all candor, that is not the highly attuned governor’s staff we know. It also suggests staff members’ appreciation for the incident is utterly at odds with that of their own boss.
Almost immediately upon hearing from our reporter, the governor ordered a flurry of investigations and hired special advisers like Dr. Leonard Kirschner. She immediately dispatched Burke himself to the hospital to collect facts. In short, Napolitano’s reaction was precisely opposite of that of her top aides.
The issue, obviously, is a matter of disclosure. And candor. And transparency.
However high the decision went — and it clearly went very high, indeed — the governor’s staff concluded the incident was not sufficiently serious to inform either the governor or the public.
And, as a great many former government officials — former FEMA Director Michael Brown comes to mind — can tell you, that is not a smart strategy at all.