Monday, December 9, 2013
WASHINGTON - Congress has approved legislation that aims to address a federal funding problem that veterans homes officials say is discouraging them from taking in some disabled and elderly veterans who need long-term care.
The changes are in an omnibus veterans affairs bill that's on its way to President Obama.
Operators of state-affiliated veterans homes in Maine and other states pushed for language authored by U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, to address the funding problem.
Michaud's bill, which was incorporated into the omnibus bill that passed the House on Tuesday afternoon, would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to enter into contracts with state-affiliated veterans homes to set reimbursement rates.
The problem, proponents of the bill say, is that a 2009 policy that sought to provide eligible veterans with long-term care at state-affiliated homes at no cost to them was implemented in a way that doesn't work for many of the homes.
Kelley Kash, CEO of Maine Veterans Homes, which operates five facilities around the state, said the VA reimbursement rates were half to two-thirds of what the facilities would have received under Medicare for the costly, around-the-clock care.
Kash said that typically amounted to a difference of $125 to $150 per person, per day.
"It's to the point that numerous state veterans homes across the nation are being forced to restrict admission of veterans or to incur unsustainable (financial) losses," said Kash, who testified before a congressional committee on the issue in March 2010.
Nationwide, the average rate for long-term care for the type of disabled veterans served by the program is roughly $359 per person per day, according to the National Association of State Veterans Homes.
The VA typically reimburses homes for $235 of that, a funding gap that would equal $45,000 per year for each covered veteran, according to the association.
Bonnie Stewart, admissions coordinator for the Maine Veterans Home in Scarborough, said Tuesday that one severely disabled veteran is living there now and more than a dozen are on a waiting list.
Stewart said the home has "sort of refrained from admitting a number of them" because of the funding issue while some families have opted to send their family members elsewhere until the issue was resolved.
Stewart said the VA has been "significantly underpaying" for the beds, which typically cost about $314 a day.
"Veterans are really unique," she said. "They made a special sacrifice and are most deserving of the care we provide here."
Kash acknowledged Tuesday that relatively few of the 600-plus beds offered by Maine Veterans Homes are occupied by veterans in the program.
Under the changes authored by Michaud, the VA would enter into contracts with the homes to set reimbursement rates that more accurately reflect the cost of the services.
"Passing this legislation into law will ensure state veterans homes are paid adequately for the services they provide and can continue to serve veterans that need care," said Michaud, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, on the House floor Tuesday evening.
The omnibus bill also would require veterans' medical facilities to better track and report sexual assaults, impose additional restrictions on protests near military funerals and expand a grant program to retrofit homes for wounded service personnel.
Addressing a longstanding and contentious issue, the bill also would provide medical care to Marines or their family members who were sickened by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina during a 30-year period.
The legislation, known as the "Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012," goes to Obama for his signature.
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC