NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- The Vermont Veterans Home is seeking an additional $2 million in state funding for its 2014 fiscal year budget, but lawmakers are not making any commitments.
Board of Trustees President Joseph L. Krawczyk Jr. and Administrator Melissa Jackson testified Tuesday before the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, offering details about the home’s $20 million proposed budget. Most of the home’s funding comes from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid and other health insurance programs, but Krawczyk said the home will require additional state funds to cover expenses.
"We know what the reimbursement is from all these different areas," Krawczyk said, but that money is not enough.
Employees at the home are scheduled for pay raises and other contracted benefits, according to Krawczyk, which accounts for the majority of the cost increases. "That’s about 60 percent, maybe a little more than 60 percent. That’s all contractual," he said.
Electricity and fuel costs are also rising.
Lawmakers made clear Tuesday that the state continues to face fiscal challenges as revenues slowly rebound from several years of decline. Still, there is a commitment to the home, Krawczyk said.
"We’ve just got to figure out how to do it. Money is tight. Both the House and Senate committees made it clear that the money is tight," he said. "Both committees are very committed to seeing that the Veterans Home stays viable Š and we keep the 200 employees down there."
Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, a Democrat and member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, cautioned that the home may require even more state funding than officials asked for on Tuesday. The uncertainty must be clarified before any decisions are made, he said.
"It may actually be more than $2 million. Until we have a better scope of what the funding is and what the scope of the problems are, I’m not going to commit to anything. I honestly think it may be more than $2 million," he said.
The home is facing significant financial challenges and has suffered from a spate of negative events, Sears said. It is running a deficit in the current budget nearing $2 million, according to state officials.
The facility’s census was purposely reduced following a near-loss in September of its provider agreement with CMS. The federal funding from CMS -- more than $10 million annually -- was in jeopardy unless the home could correct several deficiencies identified by state inspectors. The home passed a last-chance inspection in September but remains under closer scrutiny by regulators.
However, the census dipped to 118 residents as the home focused on correcting deficiencies and training staff. That drastically reduced revenues.
"In the overall scheme of things, I’m sure that we can come up with some ways, but there’s going to have to be, for the long term, an increase in census because you can’t operate a 170-bed facility at 120 people when your expenses are based on 170 people," Sears said.
There are additional issues as well, including staff dissatisfied with mandatory overtime and work schedules, he said.
Meanwhile, boosting the home’s census following the recent problems has been more difficult than expected. The home’s publicized issues "aren’t exactly good advertising and marketing plans," Sears said.
"I think they have to do a little bit more marketing and the best way to do that is get out and do some outreach to make sure people know they have a great program and that it’s a great place for veterans, despite those reports in the media," he said.
Lawmakers are aware that the Veterans Home is "a huge economic engine" for Bennington, Sears said. They are looking to ensure the home remains in Bennington, but it must also be financially viable.
"At some point, if things don’t change, you can’t afford to continue to operate a program or a facility if we don’t get some of these issues resolved. I think there’s a commitment on the part of the Senate and the administration and the House Š to make sure that we keep and have a strong veterans home in Bennington," Sears said.
Krawczyk said he and other board members understand the message: "Both committees are just saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to run this like a business,’" he said.
Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner, or follow on Twitter @nealgoswami