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Arkansas' new home for elderly and disabled veterans has cleared its final hurdle, freeing the facility to accept all payer sources and fill its 46 remaining beds.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last month informed the state Department of Veterans Affairs that it had passed an Aug. 4 inspection and could begin billing the federal agency for care rendered to VA beneficiaries, state officials said last week.

The VA certification signifies the completion of a process that began in 2012 with the closure of the Little Rock Veterans Home under a cloud of mismanagement, poor living conditions and funding shortfalls.

The state Veterans Home at North Little Rock, which opened in January, has been the opposite of its predecessor, advocates and state officials agree. The 96-bed, $24 million facility uses a progressive model aimed at reducing the institutionalized atmosphere associated with traditional nursing homes.

The final step is filling the remaining four cottages with veterans, their spouses or eligible dependents.

"I'm pleased that we have cleared the regulatory hurdles to begin billing the Veterans Administration for care provided at the new NLR Veterans Home," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a written statement. "This is a significant milestone in providing quality long-term care in a home-like environment."

The North Little Rock facility now accepts veterans who pay out of their own pockets, through Medicare and Medicaid, and with federal VA benefits. It's one of two state-run veterans homes in Arkansas; the other is in a former hospital wing in Fayetteville.

The home addresses a need in Arkansas, which has a rapidly aging population of about 250,000 veterans. With both state-run homes at full capacity, there are about 200 nursing-home beds reserved for veterans in the state.

The state VA last year commissioned a study by a group of graduate students at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which found that about 657 additional beds will be needed by 2034, when the population of elderly veterans in need of long-term care is expected to peak.

The study attributed the leap to aging Vietnam War veterans and the military's increased acceptance of women during the 20th century.

Going forward, it remains unclear how the state will address the need, but a committee has formed to explore possible options. Thus far, it has identified two main solutions: building more veterans homes or encouraging more private facilities to obtain certification through the federal VA.

Martha Deaver, president of Arkansas Advocates for Nursing Home Residents, hopes the state elects to build more homes like the VA one in North Little Rock. Most private facilities, she said, won't provide adequate care, and the state-built home is state of the art.

"The state can do a much better job providing care than the private sector," Deaver said. "The private sector puts profit over care too many times, and the data show that."

The North Little Rock home consists of eight cottages scattered across 31 acres of rolling hills that once was the Emerald Park Golf Course. The cottages resemble large residential homes and house 12 residents each.

"It's a comfortable, homelike setting," Deaver said.

"The institutionalized, sterilized atmosphere and living conditions are nonexistent," she added, referring to conditions people sometimes associate with nursing homes.

However, state officials going back to previous state VA Director Matt Snead, who resigned in March, have cautioned that the cost of additional veterans homes may be too great, and that many areas of the state wouldn't be able to support such facilities on a long-term basis.

As for the North Little Rock home, it has faced some financial hardships in its opening months. The long federal approval process left the home without a vital source of revenue, yet it began accepting federal VA beneficiaries in August.

The cost of housing those residents will be recovered in the next few months as the agency begins receiving reimbursement from the federal VA, which will back-date to the day of the inspection.

The veterans home also has had to rely on a nursing agency to fill out its staff, because it hasn't been able to hire enough of its own nurses. It's one of many health care providers in central Arkansas to face a nursing shortage.

To offset the funding shortfalls, the state VA allocated money to the home from some of its other divisions. The governor's office and the Department of Finance and Administration also provided financial help to keep the home afloat until the federal payments begin, said state VA Director Nate Todd, who was tapped by the governor to lead the agency in March.

The facility should become self-sustaining by July, Todd said.

"I'm a small-government guy," Todd said last week. "But I think our state got this veterans home right."

Metro on 12/17/2017

Print Headline: NLR vets home gets VA blessing

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