Proprietor of care home in Lexington defends his operation

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comDecember 20, 2011 

Most of the men living on a campus of three aging homes off Versailles Road have mental illness or developmental disabilities.

They come from all walks of life, but typically, they have been released from psychiatric hospitals, prisons and personal care homes. Eight of the more than 70 men at Messner Home Inc. are veterans, six are wards of the state and two are former foster children who have turned 18 and aged out of the system.

"I get the ones that nobody else wants," said owner Ralph Messner, whose late mother opened a halfway house in Lexington in 1959 that evolved into the current private operation.

Messner, 77, said he runs a good home and often works more than 65 hours a week to meet the needs of the residents. But Kentucky officials have been investigating allegations of poor living conditions and have expressed a concern about the lack of government oversight at the homes for at least the second time since 1996.

Officials from Kentucky Protection and Advocacy, an independent state agency mandated by federal law to protect and promote the rights of persons with disabilities, received a complaint that led to visits beginning in August, said executive director Marsha Hockensmith.

"Bed bugs, lack of cleanliness, lack of proper bedding, lack of privacy, and problems with the physical structure" are among the issues that Protection and Advocacy found, Hockensmith said.

Messner is upset that Kentucky Protection and Advocacy has been investigating the home. He said Veterans Administration officials told him in May that the home looked the best it had looked in seven years.

Messner concedes that there are some problems: At specific times of the day, certain rooms for non-veterans at the Messner Home "look like a pigpen," and residents often damage the property and litter the rooms, causing continual repairs and cleaning.

"I've got it in hand, but it's an ongoing thing," Messner said.

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services typically licenses and regulates homes where the mentally ill and mentally disabled live in a congregate setting. However, that is not the case with the Messner Home.

In 1996, the state agency that is now the Cabinet for Health and Family Services alleged in a lawsuit against the Messner Home that investigators found "filthy mattresses, insect infestation, soiled rooms and physical plant deterioration."

The state waged a court battle to get an injunction forcing the Messner Home to cease operation because it was not licensed by the state, according to a Fayette Circuit Court document.

In 1998, the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld a Fayette Circuit Court ruling that said Messner did not have to obtain a state health facility license to care for non-veterans because Messner was regulated by the Veterans Administration.

Only eight of the residents are now veterans, down from 51 in 1986. Several World War II and Korean War veterans who lived there have died, Messner said.

Desti Stimes, a spokeswoman for the Veterans Administration Medical Center, said recently that veterans live in only one of three buildings on the Messner Home campus. The VA has jurisdiction only on that building — a Bedford stone-facade building with thirty-seven beds at 708 Hill Rise Court. Veterans live at the Messner Home through the VA Community Residential Care Program.

The VA conducts annual and spot inspections.

The last VA inspection was Sept. 8, 2011. It was an unannounced inspection — a follow-up to an annual inspection in May — by a multidisciplinary VA team, which noted minor deficiencies, Stimes said.

"The Lexington VA Medical Center is committed to ensuring a safe, healthy environment in all facilities over which it has jurisdiction," Stimes said. "To this end, we will continue to closely monitor the building where Veterans reside at Messner Homes Inc."

State oversight 'is a must'

Neither the state nor the VA oversees two other buildings on the campus: a cottage with eight beds at 706 Hill Rise Court and a two-story white house with 32 beds at 1702 Versailles Road.

Hockensmith, the director of Protection and Advocacy, said the lack of oversight is a problem when dealing with people with mental illness.

"Appropriate and diligent oversight of any congregate setting that serves persons with mental illness and intellectual and other developmental disabilities is a must," she said.

Hockensmith said she has contacted the Veterans Administration, the Cabinet's Adult Protective Services, the Lexington Fayette County Health Department and the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government Division of Code Enforcement about problems that her agency found on visits to the Messner Home from August to October.

The Lexington Fayette County Health Department opened an investigation regarding bed bugs at the home and had a conference with Messner regarding the issue, Health Department spokesman Kevin Hall said via email. After monthly treatments, Hall said, "We've seen evidence that the infestation is diminishing." As of Monday afternoon, only one room had bed bugs, Hall said.

According to city records, code enforcement officials found several violations — including holes in walls and floors, doors that were broken and damaged, and outlets that were missing covers — in September at the home at 706 Hill Rise Court and the home on Versailles Road. Work has continued on the repairs, and the inspections have continued through this month, code enforcement officials said.

The Lexington VA Medical Center recently offered veterans the option of placement in other community residential care homes, Stimes said. Four accepted and left. One veteran has since returned to the Messner Home, she said.

State guardianship officials said five state wards have "transitioned'' out of the home in the past three months, Cabinet spokeswoman Gwenda Bond said. By December, guardianship staff had visited seven times in the last 90 days to check the welfare of the wards at the Messner Home, Bond said.

Guardianship officials have noted "ongoing work with pest control and new plastic-covered mattresses for residents," Bond said.

Protection and Advocacy disability rights advocate Kevin Fleming said the problems found this year mirrored those that state officials found in 1996.

"Our monitoring efforts there will continue," Hockensmith said. She said her agency represents some of the residents there.

Damage is constant

Recently, some of the home's 11 employees were working on improvements to the cottage and the two-story white house where city code violations were found. A bathroom window was missing.

Messner said the men who live in the buildings put holes in the walls with their fists and damage the buildings as quickly as they are repaired. Last week, one man who was mentally ill began hearing voices and "busted out two windows," Messner said.

Messner said he is a veteran who managed a Kroger store before he joined his mother at the home in 1977. He said he arrives at the main building by 6:30 a.m. most days, and even earlier on Mondays, to cook breakfast for the residents.

Throughout the day, Messner takes the men to doctors' appointments and goes to the pharmacy to get their medication. He supervises the residents as they take their medicines.

The amount the men pay for room and board, and the spending money they receive each day, depends on their income from government benefits, Messner said.

He said there is no need for additional state oversight at the home. The residents get ample protection from the state because adult protection workers and guardianship workers frequently check on residents, he said.

Messner said the residents have a complex set of problems. Some are sexual offenders who have been paroled. Some of those who are mentally ill have been violent with their families, so their families don't want them, he said.

Messner said a physician visits twice a month to provide primary medical care for the non-veterans who aren't eligible for treatment at the VA Hospital. A VA social worker visits twice each week, he said. There are many longtime residents, including one man who has stayed for 33 years, Messner said.

The men come and go as they please during the day.

"They have their rights," Messner said.

Because of their disabilities, many of the men have difficulty articulating.

But residents including Stephen Reynolds, 32, who has physical disabilities and has been at the home since 2003, said in interviews that they liked their living conditions.

Messner acknowledges that the buildings are old and the furnishings are sparse.

"Do I say it looks like a hospital? No." But, "I don't have any here who want to leave," he said.

Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3409.

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