Two Pulaski County legislators plan to tackle the issue of veteran housing in the upcoming General Assembly, in the wake of the November closure of the Little Rock Veterans Home for safety and financial reasons. Rep. John Edwards (D-Little Rock) wants the 100-bed home replaced with a new facility; Rep. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) wants to establish a task force of representatives from private veterans groups, the state Department of Veterans Affairs and the State Building Authority, to oversee research into veterans' needs, the cost of meeting them and options that exist.
In recent years, both the Little Rock home and the 108-bed Fayetteville Veterans Home have been logistic and publicity nightmares for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Little Rock home administrator Janet Levine was fired by the state director of Veterans Affairs after an investigation discovered she'd collected nearly $600,000 in illegal fees, continuing a policy that had been changed in 2009. The state director was later asked to resign by Gov. Mike Beebe. (Levine settled a termination without due process suit against the state for $150,000.) In Fayetteville, inspections of the veterans home found a laundry list of violations, including poor wound care, lack of food and dirty catheters. In October 2012 the director of the Fayetteville home resigned.
Edwards is convinced that Arkansas can do better. A National Guard member who served in Iraq, Edwards has a reputation as a legislative advocate for fellow military. He's pushed through two veterans job bills, and last year he made unannounced visits to both veterans homes. He was appalled by the general condition of the Little Rock home and dismayed to discover immobile residents in the Fayetteville facility, housed several stories up, with no escape in the event of a fire.
The Fayetteville home and the old Little Rock home are multilevel, and neither was designed as a nursing home. Edwards envisions a new, specific-use building, possibly patterned after the Northwest Louisiana War Veterans Home in Bossier City. Louisiana's 5-year-old, $21 million facility houses 156 veterans and spouses and includes an Alzheimer's ward and staff physician.
Edwards thinks Little Rock can build something similar for about $20 million, and he is prepared to sponsor a second bill seeking a roughly $7 million appropriation for the new home. The Veterans Administration will pay 65 percent of the cost of a new home, if a state comes up with the remaining 35 percent.
If Arkansas wants to be eligible for federal funding in 2013, an appropriation bill would have to pass during the upcoming legislative session. English wants to take things more slowly, with the task force presenting recommendations to the legislature in October 2013 and a vote on an appropriation in 2014.
Veterans Commissioner Tom Thomas thinks both Edwards and English are on the right track, but he doesn't expect anything to happen this session. "There are too many high priorities right now," he said. "You have to look at the greater good. The Medicaid shortfall, surely that will affect a lot of veterans and a lot of other people."
He also believes time is necessary for the state to study its options. "Where these homes work best, it seems that the management is always contracted out [to private companies]. Some other states have relieved the VA of this responsibility and turned it over to the department of health or DHS. We've been building and maintaining these homes in the same way since the '50s and '60s. Maybe we should look at some other options. It might work better to have several satellite homes instead of one core home. Lots of states provide daycare for veterans who need someplace to go in the day, when their families work," he said.
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