Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The state of New Mexico has reached a $380,000 settlement to resolve a wrongful-death lawsuit centering on the veterans home in Truth or Consequences – where legislative analysts say a deadly COVID-19 outbreak was exacerbated by inadequate state oversight.
It’s the second wrongful-death case settled since mid-September, bringing the total payout to $680,000. A third lawsuit – a class-action complaint on behalf of residents who died – is pending.
Deficiencies at the veterans home also have cost the state $180,000 in federal penalties since 2018.
In an interview Tuesday, acting Health Secretary David Scrase said independent evaluations conducted on behalf of the federal Medicaid agency last month show the veterans home has addressed its deficiencies.
Furthermore, he said, the state is constructing new buildings – similar to group homes – at the site, which will provide a more comfortable, home-like setting as part of a $60 million project. At least some of the residences should be ready by fall 2023.
The state settled, Scrase said, to avoid the cost of ongoing litigation.
“I think of settling as a way to efficiently protect taxpayer dollars,” he said.
The $380,000 settlement resolved a lawsuit filed on behalf of the estate of Richard Zimpel, a veteran and resident of the New Mexico State Veterans Home, a state-run nursing facility about 150 miles south of Albuquerque.
Zimpel was a 90-year-old veteran in reasonably good health when he was admitted into the home in August 2020, according to the lawsuit. Employees told his family the facility was a safe place, the suit said, and they reported no cases of COVID-19 at the veterans home immediately before his admission.
But Zimpel contracted the virus and died in early December 2020.
The 17-page legal complaint alleges the Department of Health’s own inspections found “numerous serious deficiencies” in infection control, contributing to the worst COVID-19 outbreak at any DOH facility.
The suit includes claims of negligence and wrongful death.
The state of New Mexico denied the claims and sought dismissal of the suit.
The settlement came after a similar lawsuit was resolved for $300,000 on behalf of Vietnam veteran Rickey Lee Widener, who died the same day as Zimpel.
A class-action lawsuit – proposing to cover other residents who died of COVID-19 at the veterans home – is pending in the state’s 1st Judicial District. It estimates at least 36 residents died of a preventable coronavirus outbreak at the veterans home.
Frank T. Davis, an Albuquerque-based attorney who filed the class-action lawsuit, said he and others “will continue to pursue justice for all these families.”
He also represented Zimpel’s estate.
“It is my firmly held belief that all of the Veterans who died as a result of the NMSVH’s Covid debacle, and their families, deserve the same type of the justice that has been provided to the families of Messrs. Widener and Zimpel,” Davis said in a written statement Tuesday.
In 2021, a report presented to state legislators said the deadly outbreak at the veterans home in late 2020 was exacerbated by inadequate state oversight.
The U.S. Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services cited the home for deficiencies repeatedly between 2015 and 2020, according to the Zimpel lawsuit.