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.
Cissy Rucker, named by Gov. Mike Beebe as director of the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs in May, after the forced resignation of David Fletcher, plans to meet with Edwards next week. "We're doing a lot of information and fact-gathering, but I'm not ready to come forward with a recommendation as to what I think we need," she said. "Can we support this sort of home? What about the budget? Is there really a need? ... We just closed down one [home], and we've got some issues that we're trying to resolve at the other [Fayetteville] one."
Edwards believes that veterans benefit from the company of other veterans. "We have obligations to those who have served, and it's a smaller and smaller group that's willing to take on this task for the rest of the nation ... the disconnect between the civilian population and those who've served is greater than it's ever been, or at least in my lifetime." A few decades ago, he said, veterans could have found fellow vets in nearly any nursing home, but now, "it's more important to have places for vets to be together, because it's not the common experience it has been in the past."
Changing demographics complicate the situation, Edwards said.
"Arkansas has already had a significant increase in the number of female veterans, and typically, females live longer. And because of better medical care on the battlefield, we're having more and more people survive ... who have suffered from things such as traumatic brain injury."
Edwards knows the veterans home will be a tough sell to fiscally conservative lawmakers, but he has some tentative support. "Edwards has made a pretty compelling argument that we ought to be doing more here. Some of the details, we don't have answers, but I'm probably going to support the bill," said Rep. Davy Carter, speaker of the House. A spokesman said Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has made no firm commitments to the home, but Edwards said McDaniel has indicated to him that he would funnel some money from his Consumer Education and Enforcement Fund to a veterans home. (Expenditures from the fund, amassed from legal settlements paid to the state, are nearly entirely at McDaniel's discretion; he's been criticized for bypassing the legislature in spending the money.)
Governor Beebe isn't officially supporting any bills yet, although Edwards did meet with Beebe's chief of staff. "My sense is the governor's got a lot on his plate, and I think he's looking to those of us in the General Assembly who care about this issue to present him with a plan. I'm very satisfied with the outcome of the meeting," Edwards said.
But Edwards isn't depending entirely on government monies. He's shopping his cause to philanthropic organizations, as well. Under Arkansas law, the VA director can accept designated gifts.
Edwards believes better oversight and focus will help guard against further improprieties. At the Little Rock Veterans Home, 50 residents were nursing home patients, and the other 18 were categorized as domiciliary, meaning they were disabled or economically disadvantaged but did not require 24-hour care.
Edwards has talked to Commissioner Thomas about proposing legislation to require that at least one member of the Veterans Commission have nursing home management experience. "It's a good idea," Thomas said, "but since its inception the Veterans Commission has been made up of veterans, and I'm not sure you could find veterans with this expertise. ... If you start bringing other people onto the Veterans Commission, you might as well change the name to the Veterans Advisory Committee. It changes the whole thing."
Currently Arkansas has about 251,000 veterans, and as of 2011, Louisiana had 297,658. Louisiana's five veterans facilities contain 785 beds, to Arkansas's 108.
"Over the years, Louisiana has worked out some of the kinks, so they're a good model for us. If they can do this in Louisiana, we can do this in Arkansas," Edwards said.