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Tuesday July 30, 2013

BENNINGTON -- Gov. Peter Shumlin is asking lawmakers to appropriate an additional $2 million for the Vermont Veterans Home to cover the facility's projected deficit for this fiscal year.

Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding made the request last week to members of the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Committee to help the home cover an expected $3.5 million deficit at the close of the current fiscal year. Lawmakers will begin working on an annual budget adjustment bill later this year ahead of the legislative session that begins in January.

The home, the state's only state-run residential facility for veterans, has been struggling with its finances for more than a year. Part of the problem is a low census at the facility. Currently there are nearly 127 residents but the home's capacity is 171.

Lawmakers provided an additional $1.4 million to help the home with its deficit earlier this year. Legislative leaders said the issue would be revisited when lawmakers reconvened for the second half of the biennium.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Joint Fiscal Committee, said administration officials told Joint Fiscal Committee members of the pending funding request because the deficit is persisting.

"The census is still down. They can't make it up," he said. "I think most people thought they would have a difficult time getting their census up to 150.


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However, Sears said lawmakers are unlikely to commit to any additional funds until receiving a report commissioned by the Legislature earlier this year. A consultant is expected to provide insight on the home's viability when the Joint Fiscal Committee meets again on Aug. 8.

The report is expected to include alternative governance structures and other ideas to help the home sustain itself.

"I don't think there's anyone interested in closing down the veterans home and walking away from it. There's going to be some suggestions from the consultant that some people won't be able to swallow. But, I haven't seen the report," Sears said.

The home is looking into new measures to help the boost the census and increase revenues, according to Administrator Melissa Jackson. "As we continue to increase our census that deficit should be diminished. Our goal is to have a census of 150 by January," she said.

An application is pending with Massachusetts to allow veterans in that state to reside at the Bennington home. Initial inquiries are being done with New Hampshire officials, too. Veterans from New York are already approved.

Jackson said there is a waiting list of about 450 veterans for residential facilities in Massachusetts. The Vermont Veterans Home could provide care for many veterans that live near the border, she said.

David Weinstein, a senior policy advisor to Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, said Sanders' office has been working with state officials to improve the financial and regulatory conditions at the home.

"We've been working with the home on a variety of levels to try to address some of the challenges they've been facing. One of them is increasing the census," Weinstein said. "One of the issues is they just don't have enough of the beds filled."

According to Weinstein, Massachusetts will certify nursing facilities in other states if they are within 50 miles of the border.

"That opens the door, potentially, to referring their residents to the home," he said. "We'll have to make the case that it is in the interest of the Massachusetts residents to be placed in the Bennington home."

Meanwhile, the home remains under scrutiny by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare (CMS) for deficiencies identified by the Division of Licensing and Protection, the state agency charged with regulating nursing facilities on behalf of CMS. The home was threatened last year with a loss of CMS funding after several deficiencies were identified. That federal funding -- which accounts for most of the home's $21 million budget -- was preserved after administrators and staff rallied to pass a last-chance inspection in September.

New deficiencies continue to be identified. Jackson said the latest issues have resulted in an Aug. 26 deadline to correct them. Failing to do correct the issues means the home could be decertified and federal funding cut off.

Jackson said the recent deficiencies reported on July 17 are minor but must still be corrected. In one instance frozen hot dogs were sitting on a counter when an inspector entered the kitchen. In another case, an attendant took too long to answer a call light.

"Those hot dogs had just been removed from the freezer with the intent of putting them into the fridge to be thawed when the surveyor walked in," Jackson said.

A written plan of correction is expected to be sent this week, Jackson said, which will be followed by another survey of the facility to ensure that all deficiencies are corrected.

"The state has the option to come in or do a desk review. We actually prefer that they come," she said.

Weinstein said Sanders is also trying to aid the home with its regulatory woes because the home remains "under very close scrutiny and at risk of being decertified."

Weinstein said Sanders spoke with CMS officials last week about the home's ongoing issues and asked for adequate time "to right the ship."

"Sen. Sanders recognizes that there are some serious challenges at the home and the last thing he wants to do is make excuses for any deficiencies at the home," Weinstein said. But, "it's in no one's interest if they don't work closely with the state to correct the deficiencies."

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