Legislators OK $1.8M to assist North Little Rock vets home

State funds to pay expenses

Posted: August 20, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/STATON BREIDENTHAL --10/25/17-- Legislators tour the Arkansas State Veterans Home in North Little Rock Wednesday morning with the facilities administrator, Lindsey Cleburne (far left), following a committee meeting.

More of Arkansas' "rainy day" funds are going to the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs to subsidize the operations of the state's new veterans nursing home in North Little Rock.

A legislative panel last week approved Gov. Asa Hutchinson's request to transfer up to $1.8 million to the state VA, which has met a variety of obstacles to filling the Arkansas State Veterans Home at North Little Rock with residents.

The delays have caused the home to operate at a deficit since opening in January 2017. The agency, prior to last week's allocation, had received about $1.4 million from the state's reserve funds to make ends meet. "Rainy day" funds are monies set aside by the state to cover emergencies and other priorities.

Retired Army Col. Nate Todd, director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, told lawmakers last week that the agency aims to get the North Little Rock veterans home to between 85 percent and 90 percent capacity.

"With that, we hope that the revenue from the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] per diem, Medicaid and private pay will cover the operational expenses," Todd said. "Prior to that, you still have the social worker on staff, you still have the dietitian on staff. But as the residents increase, the indirect costs decrease over those departments."

The Arkansas State Veterans Home at North Little Rock was built to help address the increasing need for late-life care for Arkansas' aging population of veterans. The $24 million facility opened five years after the closure of the Little Rock Veterans Home, which shut down in 2012 because of deplorable living conditions and a lack of funding.

The North Little Rock home is one of two state-run veterans homes (the other is in Fayetteville), but it's the first built strictly for veterans and their eligible dependents.

It was one of the first in the nation to implement a "small-home" design. Sitting on 31 acres that once comprised Emerald Park Golf Course, the 96-bed facility consists of eight separate cottages, called "Hero Homes."

The design aims to avoid the institutionalized feel of traditional nursing homes, and residents have more freedom.

The special approach, though, requires greater up-front costs and higher staffing levels, which have contributed to the home's financial struggles during its first year and a half of operations, officials have said.

Staff shortages, stemming from a regional nursing shortage, have also forced the home to increase its compensation packages and hire nurses from agencies on a temporary basis.

Interest from prospective residents also waned earlier this year, agency officials said, but a recent uptick in applications has the agency hopeful. It's processing eight potential residents.

The home has admitted four new residents in the last month, but those new admissions have been offset by death of three residents and one who moved back to his hometown to live with family.

In July, the home operated at a $54,000 deficit, but Sue Harper, an agency spokesman, said those numbers were misleading.

"The numbers are distorted for July because in July operating expenses were not paid on time due to cash constraints which resulted in a net cash decrease of $54,000," Harper said in an email.

Asked whether the agency would need more rainy day funds, Harper said, "The most recent rainy day funds of $1.8 million allows ADVA to operate strategically and not reactively through 2019 and are to be released on an as need basis. This is financially and strategically improved planning, programming and budgeting for the NLR home."

The state Office of Long Term Care in late July also completed its annual inspection of the veterans home at North Little Rock. Surveyors found a handful of nail care, fire safety and food preparation and storage violations, but none were considered high-level deficiencies.

"We were very proud of our July survey," Harper said, noting that all deficiencies had been corrected.

Harper said the home is still looking for residents, and she encouraged veterans in need of long-term care to consider the North Little Rock facility.

J.R. Davis, the governor's spokesman, was optimistic about the recent uptick in interest from prospective residents. The rainy-day fund allocation, he said, should provide the agency with a cushion throughout the next year.

"It allows them to think strategically rather than, for lack of a better phrase, plug holes where needed," Davis said. "I think this relieves some of the pressure."

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