Iowa Republican lawmakers having trouble with oversight concept

Members of the Iowa House and Senate begin the work of the 2020 legislative session this morning. Speaking to journalists last week, GOP leaders described plans to work on a wide range of issues in the coming months, including workforce development, taxes, child care, and medical cannabis.

But top statehouse Republicans aren’t planning any oversight hearings on what’s been happening at the Glenwood Resource Center for Iowans with severe intellectual disabilities.

As Barbara Rodriguez was first to report in a series of stories for the Des Moines Register, state law enforcement and federal officials are investigating whether staff at Glenwood followed clinical and ethical standards.

Fifteen of some 200 Glenwood residents died between June 2018 and May 2019, raising questions about medical care provided to them. The federal probe is also looking into “human subject experiments” that may have been conducted to study “optimal hydration” and sexual arousal, among other things. Iowa Department of Human Services Director Kelly Garcia put Glenwood superintendent Jerry Rea on administrative leave in early December and fired him late last month.

At a January 7 forum organized by the Associated Press, Governor Kim Reynolds said of the situation at Glenwood, “It is unacceptable, it is not adequate, and we are making changes.” She praised Garcia for convening an “external team” as well as an internal review of policies and procedures at the DHS facility.

“PREMATURE” TO HOLD HEARINGS?

Reporters asked legislative leaders on January 7 whether the House and Senate oversight committees will hold hearings on what’s been going on at Glenwood. House Speaker-select Pat Grassley argued for letting the federal and state investigations play out. “For us to sit there and just start having meetings before we’ve even reached the bottom of what’s going on with that situation would be a little bit premature.” Grassley’s met with DHS Director Garcia and said she “recognizes the severity of the situation.” He expects DHS to be “in constant conversation” with leadership and lawmakers on the human resources committees regarding any needed corrective action.

Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson pointed out that the legislature’s oversight committees met when the media reported on alleged abuse of teenagers at a private boarding school in southeast Iowa. (That scandal led to legislation in 2016 establishing standards for boarding schools.) Why not investigate possible mistreatment of residents at a state-run facility? Grassley expressed his “full confidence” in the DHS director and said he expects her to keep him in the loop.

Iowa Senate President Charles Schneider, the second-ranking Republican in the upper chamber, echoed the incoming House speaker. “The things that we’ve been reading about [at Glenwood] are disturbing. It seems like the governor and the new DHS director Kelly Garcia are doing a good job of responding right now. We’ll see what their report shows and take action from there.”

“WE CAN’T BE AFRAID TO INVESTIGATE”

Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen told reporters at the AP forum that last year, her caucus wanted the Government Oversight Committee to look at “alarming issues” at all DHS facilities, including not just Glenwood, but also the Woodward Resource Center for people with intellectual disabilities and juvenile facilities in Toledo and Eldora.

Democrats “had an amendment ready to go” on such oversight, but Republicans didn’t allow any amendments to be debated on the Senate floor when that bill came up.

“I don’t know what the point of having a government oversight committee is if the committee is not willing to meet,” Petersen said.

During the 2019 legislative session, the Senate’s Government Oversight Committee met only twice: an organizational meeting in January, and a brief session in April to advance a bill removing the secretary of state’s responsibility to publish proposed constitutional amendments. State Senator Amy Sinclair convened one more meeting in October to discuss break-ins at county courthouses that were authorized under a security testing contract. The House Government Oversight Committee, led by State Representative Mary Ann Hanusa, met seven times during the 2019 session, mostly to have various state officials give presentations and answer questions.

Iowa House Minority Leader Todd Prichard said anyone reading recent news about Glenwood would be “shocked.” Democrats want to look at whether staffing and funding are adequate for DHS facilities. “We can’t be afraid to investigate just because we may not like what we might find. […] We need to ask those hard questions and not be afraid of what we might find.”

“WE WERE TOLD THAT THERE WAS NOT A PROBLEM”

Responding to his Democratic counterparts, Grassley said House Republicans “were hearing similar things” about Glenwood last year and asked the agency director whether more resources were needed, or whether any investigation was being done. “We were told that there was not a problem.”

Bleeding Heartland asked former DHS Director Jerry Foxhoven if those statements were consistent with his recollection of such conversations. He replied by email on January 9 that lawmakers asked him about the deaths at Glenwood. He assigned a division administrator to look into it and compare the pattern to facilities in other states.

His conclusion was that we were pretty consistent with other places and that, while there had been a spike in the number of deaths, spikes occur commonly for no problematic reason.  He looked at the quality of care provided and concluded that the quality of care was good.

Foxhoven posited, “it appeared that the care was appropriate, but that many of the deaths were for fragile patients who were elderly and residents/patients for a long time.”

Whereas Grassley implied that the DHS director had assured GOP lawmakers his agency didn’t need additional resources, Foxhoven told me, “I was not asked if we needed additional funding for our institutions.” He noted that over the past decade of so, DHS has shrunk by nearly a thousand employees, from more than 5,000 to just over 4,000.

Some of the staff cuts stemmed from Governor Terry Branstad’s decision to close in-patient facilities in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant. But the DHS facilities that remained open “received some of the highest reductions in personnel,” Foxhoven said. “Throughout DHS, there is a shortage of personnel  — largely caused by the lack of a ‘salary bill.’”

Did Republican lawmakers raise concerns about human experiments at Glenwood last year? “I was never asked about human experiments, but was not aware that there were any such experiments going on while I was there.”

How federal investigators became aware of potentially unethical studies on patients is not yet clear. Perhaps those allegations would have come to light earlier if legislative oversight committees had exercised their authority to look into staffing and management at the facility.

After Grassley asserted that his colleagues were told “there was not a problem” at Glenwood, Petersen countered, “I’m a mom of teenage kids, and I can tell you a very simple rule: Trust, but verify. […] That’s why we have checks and balances in government. They should be used.”

Unfortunately, the majority party isn’t inclined to take that good advice.

UPDATE: Foxhoven provided charts (see here and here) showing that Glenwood had 920 full-time equivalent employees in 2009. That number dropped slightly to 899 by January 2011, when Branstad became governor again. By August 2018, the number of full-time equivalent staff at the facility was down to 710, roughly 20 percent below 2009 levels.

Top photo, from left: Iowa House Speaker-select Pat Grassley, Iowa Senate President Charles Schneider, Iowa Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, Iowa House Minority Leader Todd Prichard at the Associated Press legislative forum on January 7.

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