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Funding crunch threatens W.Va. veterans care home

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia needs another nursing home for veterans but faces trouble paying off the construction bonds for the one it already has, state Veterans Assistance Secretary Keith Gwinn told lawmakers Monday.

Veterans are now waiting more than a year for a bed at the Clarksburg nursing home, which opened in 2008 and is already full, with 114 patients, Gwinn told a House-Senate committee assigned to oversee veterans issues. About 100 veterans are on the waiting list, including 30 for the Clarksburg facility's unit for those with Alzheimer's disease, Gwinn said.

"Do we need one? Yes, absolutely," Gwinn told the lawmakers.

Close to 170,000 West Virginians are veterans, more than 1 in 10 adults, according to the latest estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau. Just 11 states have a larger segment of veterans among their residents. More than two-thirds of West Virginia's veterans are 55 or older.

The Clarksburg home now costs $12 million annually in salaries and expenses, and patients' fees cover only about $5.6 million of that, Gwinn said. General tax revenues are providing the home with $6.8 million during the ongoing budget year.

Gwinn said his department envisions another 120-bed home toward the opposite end of the state, in Beckley. Like the Clarksburg facility, that one would be built alongside a U.S. Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Gwinn said. He estimated the project's entire price tag between $40 million and $44 million.

Aided by a federal grant, West Virginia built the Clarksburg home with proceeds from 30-year bonds backed by lottery scratch-off tickets with proceeds dedicated to veterans' needs. Scratch-off ticket monies began paying off the bonds in 2004, but revenues have since begun to falter, Gwinn said.

While the bonds need $774,000 annually, the lottery proceeds have fallen from $1.2 million several years ago to $820,000 for the most recent payment, Gwinn said. Citing lottery estimates, he said revenues are expected to start falling short in three years.

"We're barely covering our bond payment," Gwinn warned.

Gwinn noted that the Legislature dedicated the scratch-off proceeds toward the state's new veterans cemetery in 2008. So far, the cemetery has 40 graves and doesn't need the lottery revenues, Gwinn said. He said lottery officials are also looking at revenue options.

Randall Bare, of the West Virginia Veterans Council, which helps to develop state policy, attended Monday's meeting and suggested an income tax return check-off box allowing West Virginians to donate $1 or so toward veterans' needs. Other states provide that choice on their returns, Bare said.

House Veterans Affairs Chairman Richard Iaquinta, who co-chairs the joint interim study panel, quizzed Gwinn on the nursing home funding situation.

Citing the lottery estimate, Iaquinta, a Harrison County Democrat and a veteran, asked, "Well then, how can we expand to another facility?"

"That's why we're here today, sir, to discuss this," Gwinn replied.


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