Saturday March 16, 2013

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Citing its impact on the local economy, Bennington-area lawmakers are looking to help the Vermont Veterans Home address a $3.4 million projected deficit in its 2014 fiscal year budget, but filling in the gap may be a tough sell with fellow lawmakers.

Rep. Alice Miller, D-Shaftsbury, who is responsible for the home's budget as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, asked her colleagues on Friday to fully fund the home's projected losses. Miller said she made a case to her committee that they seemed to embrace.

"The committee was very sympathetic. They feel obligated to take care of the veterans and fund the budget," Miller said. "It's been put on a wish list with very high priority of things to fund. I feel somewhat confident that it will be funded."

The home is a major employer in Bennington and contributes substantially to the local economy. Any widespread loss of jobs and associated benefits could be devastating to the community, Miller said.

"I think the most important thing is that we keep the place going and we don't let it fail. We have, I think, 218 employees there. That's very, very important to the Bennington economy. So, I'm doing everything in my power to make sure they continue and we resolve the problems," she said.

Committee Chairwoman Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford, said the committee planned to consider the request made by Miller, but noted it is "an incredibly hard budget year." She said a decision would likely be made by the end of next week.

Miller said state Finance Commissioner James Reardon supports her efforts to secure the funding. "He fully supports the $3.4 million. He promises that he will help me get that money," she said.

Reardon could not be reached on Friday.

The veterans home has had a trying time, financially and otherwise, for more than a year. That has lead to lawmakers raising concerns about the home's ability to sustain itself.

It was threatened last year with a loss of federal funding from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services after several deficiencies were identified. Administrators and staff rallied, however, and passed a last-chance inspection to preserve funding. The home remains under enhanced scrutiny by CMS, however.

That ordeal contributed to a precipitous drop in the home's census. The facility can accommodate 170 residents, but it currently has just 120, according to Administrator Melissa Jackson and Board of Trustees President Joseph L. Krawczyk Jr. The census is expected to increase to about 135 residents by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, they said.

A focus by staff and administrators last summer and fall on ensuring the home remained in compliance with federal regulations contributed to the home's financial woes, Jackson said. Officials agreed to allow the census to drop to focus on better patient care, she said.

"We basically stopped admissions. We were very selective in who we took," she said.

Successfully raising the census would cut into the projected deficit. The home has created a position for an admissions nurse and marketing person who will look to recruit veterans and their spouses to reside at the home, which is the only state-run veterans' home in the state, Jackson.

"One of the things that could change (the deficit), and we're working really hard, is the census," she said.

On the other hand, recruiting residents has become more difficult because the home has been labeled a "special focus facility" by CMS. That means the home is under closer scrutiny and families "may be reluctant to place their loved ones here," Jackson said.

The home has had a rash of misfortune, too. According to Jackson, 37 residents died between September and the end of January. That has prevented the census from rising, she said.

"The numbers aren't great, but we could be so much worse off," she said.

Additionally, there are nine current residents who have not completed paperwork to allow federal programs to pay for their care, according to Krawczyk. As a result, the home is receiving no payment for the care it provides those residents.

"People don't understand, that hurts other veterans," Krawczyk said.

The relationship between staff and administrators also remains strained. The staff, who are members of the Vermont State Employees Association, raised concerns last year about staffing levels, work schedules and mandatory overtime.

VSEA officials and administrators both said they are working to improve relations. A new scheduling system has been implemented, and Jackson said she is holding regular staff meetings and spending more time on the floor to help improve communication.

Lawmakers are aware that issues remain unresolved, however.

"There's kind of a disconnect between the administration and the staff," Miller said. "I've done everything I can to make that better, trying to get everybody to the table to work together."

Staffing levels remain problematic, according to the VSEA. Administrators believe that the home is currently staffed to care for nearly 150 residents, despite having a much lower census.

The union disagrees.

"VSEA is well aware that the administration is telling legislators and others that the vets home is currently staffed to care for 145 or so veterans, but if you ask front-line nurses and other vets home caregivers if that staffing number is for real, they will tell you it's not," VSEA President John Reese said. "There are simply not enough nurses and caregivers on the floor to provide the level of patient care Vermont veterans deserve. The trail of citations the vets home has received in the last year -- and CMS designating the facility as a ‘special focus facility' -- is ample independent confirmation of this. VSEA nurses and caregivers remain hopeful the administration will ultimately listen to the front-line workers who have made the Vets' Home work since the days of the U.S. Civil War."

The Legislature has already approved a $20,000 expenditure to fund an independent study of the home. Miller said that study will provide lawmakers and administrators with recommendations on how to structure and improve the facility in the future. That study has not yet begun.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com, or follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami