War veterans face paying to stay at state veterans homes
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
They have received medals, commendations and cheers. Now, Georgia's war veterans are getting something else from the state for the first time: A bill.
Lawmakers earlier this year authorized charging veterans a new residential fee if they live and receive care in the state's two war veteran's homes. The move aims to take advantage of a federal reimbursement program that helps veterans pay for assisted-living-type care. It is also a sign that times are still tough for state budgets.
The new flow of money, which officials estimate could total more than $3 million annually, is earmarked to go back into the two homes with hopes it helps provide care for a greater number of veterans. One lawmaker said the move will help "modernize" the homes' funding.
But it comes at a cost, said those most directly affected by it.
"You're not modernizing anything when you balance your budget on the backs of veterans who wouldn't be here if they had a choice," said Robert A. Ward, 65, an Air Force veteran who has lived at the war home in Milledgeville for the past six years.
No final decisions have been made about how much money each veteran in the homes may have to pay.
Georgia has been the only state that has not charged its veterans — about 400 — to live in its state war veterans' nursing homes.
The state has relied on about a 50/50 split between state appropriations and federal "per diem" payments to cover the operating costs of the homes.
Those costs ran to about $14.78 million at the Georgia War Veterans Home in Milledgeville for fiscal year 2011, the latest data available. Operating costs for the Georgia War Veterans Nursing Home in Augusta were about $10.28 million.
The set-up to pay for them was a point of pride for the state Department of Veterans Services, which is now charged with figuring out how to implement the fees. Officials there The department did not want to change the arrangement, which was put in place decades ago to honor the men and women who served their country. "We would have preferred to continue the funding method" already in place, said Daniel D. Holtz, the department's assistant commissioner. "But the General Assembly felt there was a need for another revenue stream."
The homes, austere but friendly places, are lauded by families for their care. On the small campus in Milledgeville, where several buildings house residents, staff and veterans alike greet visitors warmly and take on tasks as they are able, such as starting a vegetable garden in a sunny spot near a courtyard.
State budget cuts, however, have taken a toll.
Lawmakers have set its projected operating budget for fiscal year 2013 at $20.4 million. The department, which oversees the two homes, has seen two 2 percent budget cuts in each of the last three years. In 2008, the Milledgeville home made headlines after it closed a dormitory and moved out 81 residents. The move saved the department about $2.7 million a year and was part of a 10 percent budget cut mandated by then Gov. Sonny Perdue.
In the years since that closure, lawmakers and the veteran services department have talked about ways to bring in more money.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Aid and Attendance benefit, designed by federal law to assist veterans with payments for direct medical care, was identified as a source for new funding.
The AandA benefit, according to state officials, amounts to $682 a month — or less, since the benefit is based on a veteran's income and assets. If a veteran exceeds a certain financial threshold, they may not receive a payment at all.
Most of the veterans living and receiving care in the homes are aged and infirm, on limited incomes. Their families may be, too, although lawmakers argue there are other safety nets to catch those who in need.
"We in Georgia are unique in not maximizing funding for Georgia nursing homes for veterans," said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, a member of the House Appropriations Committee and sponsor of House Bill 535 — the measure formally proposing the fee. "HB 535 was the beginning of modernizing" the state homes' funding, Oliver said. By not taking advantage of something like the AandA benefit, the state was "placing too much of a burden on Georgia taxpayers and not enough on federal taxpayers," Oliver said.
Adding to veterans' sensitivity, many said they did not find out about the effort until after the bill passed. By then, Gov. Nathan Deal had indicated he would sign it, which he did on May 1. The bill went into effect Sunday, although not the fee. The veterans services department is currently trying to structure it to match the AandA payout schedule, so that they do not have to charge veterans more than they receive through the benefit. Those who don't receive the benefit may have to pay out of pocket, although the department will be allowed to waive fees based on economic need.
A formal fee structure will likely be presented to the department's governing state Veterans Service Board in September or October. If they approve it, as expected, the fees could start around Jan. 1. In the meantime, those opposed to the move said they will continue to speak out.
"It's reprehensible and morally wrong," said Marvin Myers, president of the Georgia Vietnam Veterans Alliance Inc. "I just think we're going to penalize these guys because they got old and didn't have enough money."
Distributed by MCT Information Services