NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $20,000 study of the Vermont Veterans Home Tuesday to determine the facility's financial viability.
Lawmakers have said they are increasingly alarmed by the home's financial stability. Senate Appropriations Committee Jane Kitchel, D-Danville, said her committee unanimously approved language to be included in the 2013 fiscal year budget adjustment that would provide funding for "independent review of management operations of the home."
"Everyone is feeling that this is an important facility, an important resource. We just feel like we have to see what can be done to improve the situation and get us on track for long-term sustainability," Kitchel said Tuesday.
The veterans home, the only state-run veterans nursing care facility in Vermont, is running a deficit in the current fiscal year that could approach $3 million, according to officials. The 2014 fiscal year budget deficit is projected to be about $2.5 million before a $400,000 contribution from the state's Global Commitment fund.
Lawmakers are concerned that those numbers mean the facility may no longer be able to sustain itself financially, requiring more financial assistance from the state.
"I'm really concerned, in a couple of years if things don't change, that we end up losing it," said Democratic Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, a member of the Appropriations Committee. "We're very concerned that if it continues on the road it is on it's not going to last in operation much longer."
Kitchel said there is no question about the operation of the facility for the 2014 fiscal year that will begin July 1. "It's about what needs to be done longer-term," she said.
The funding will help a third party "really take an analytical eye on practices and staffing and governance and anything to really help us figure this out," Kitchel said.
The home, which can accommodate almost 170 residents, only has a current average of 120 residents. The facility's census was purposely reduced following a near-loss in September of its provider agreement with Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services. The federal funding from CMS -- the majority of the home's funding -- was in jeopardy unless the home could correct several deficiencies identified by state inspectors last year. The home passed a last chance inspection in September but remains under closer scrutiny.
However, the census dropped to 118 residents as the home focused on correcting the deficiencies and training staff, which drastically reduced revenues.
According to the home's proposed 2014 fiscal year budget, officials are counting on an average daily census of 140 residents. That would still be down from the 150 residents in the current budget.
Meanwhile, the home's costs continue to rise, including expenditures for salaries and benefits, fuel and food. Revenues are not increasing, however. Officials say they are expecting the current daily stipend from the Veterans Administration for residents to remain $97.07. The daily Vermont Medicaid rate for a resident will be flat at $245 and the daily New York Medicaid will also remain stagnant at $228.
Kitchel said her committee chose to include funding for the study in the budget adjustment rather than the 2014 fiscal year budget so the money "would move out now."
"We're not waiting for ‘14. We want to get this started," she said.
The House has already approved its version of the budget adjustment and would have to approve the Senate's changes. Kitchel said that does not appear to be an issue.
"Preliminary conversations indicate they would support this as well," she said.
Veterans Home Board of Trustees President Joseph L. Krawczyk Jr. said he is pleased the committee is looking to fund the study.
"It's great that they're going to take an in-depth look at it and get an outside party to come in and help with the financial situation we see every year," he said. "They're also concerned with the 200 jobs here. That has a major impact on our town. Everybody wants to make this place succeed."
Contact Neal P. Goswami at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami