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Florida VA Nursing Homes Only Meet 20 Percent Of Need

One of six VA-funded, state run nursing homes in Florida the Clyde E. Lassen home in St. Augustine.
One of six VA-funded, state run nursing homes in Florida the Clyde E. Lassen home in St. Augustine.

By its own analysis, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs calculates that Florida only has 20 percent of the VA-sponsored nursing home beds it needs to serve aging veterans. And it’s put the state on a “critical” list when it comes to building VA nursing homes.

“I need nursing homes,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Glenn Sutphin, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “The VA says there are two states that have critical needs Texas and Florida. I’m supposed to have 4,049 beds. That’s what they say I should have. I’ve got like 810. I’ve got two nursing homes I’m trying to build. We need to keep building them. But they changed the design. They went from $38 million to $58 million.”

The cost of the nursing home planned for Port St. Lucie, jumped $20 million because of design changes according to an online video, “We have taken a concept of creating a home environment for our residents, for our veterans who live with us. We create an environment where it’s not as institutional as your traditional nursing home creating small neighborhoods where possible.”

That includes private rooms for veterans, a necessity for today’s military according to VA Secretary Bob McDonald.

“Now with a volunteer Army, everybody has their own room. We’ve got to have the same in the VA. If they’re used to that in the Army, they’ll expect that in the VA,” McDonald said.

The VA nursing home design criteria changed five years ago. It’s just that Florida didn’t think the changes applied to its projects, but they did. And that miscalculation has delayed construction of the Ardie R. Copas State Veterans’ Nursing Home at Port St. Lucie for more than a year.

”We in Port St. Lucie alone with our indigent, homeless and etcetera veterans could fill a nursing home tomorrow,” said Richard Feldman, commander of American Legion Post 318 in Port St. Lucie. It has 1500 members.

Feldman, a World War II Marine veteran who served 1943-1953, said the more personalized design mandated by the VA is not worth the wait.

“Because they were all set to break ground and doing the planning and then all of the sudden they come up with this,” Feldman said. “Somebody’s idea of what’s better for veterans, what’s better for veterans is to give them the care they need.”

And he said the Port St. Lucie region needs a VA-state run nursing home even though the VA will pay private nursing homes to care for a veteran. The Port St. Lucie plans have been reworked, but additional money is needed to build the 120-bed home.

The state will pay 35 percent and the federal VA 65 percent. Florida is waiting for the VA to release its nursing home grants’ list. It usually comes out in November, but now is expected in early January. The delay doesn’t worry Florida VA director Sutphin.

“We of course have been assured verbally, ‘Don’t worry we’ve got everything fixed for Florida,’” Sutphin said. “I can’t move forward until I actually know I’ve got the funding.”

That’s federal funding. There’s still the state contribution. Sutphin said he’s talking with house and senate staff and hopes to start construction in February at the Port St. Lucie site, even though the additional state money wouldn’t theoretically be available until July 1, 2017.

And Sutphin is still negotiating with the VA over refurbishing a second VA nursing home at Lake Baldwin in Orlando – where again - the state is up against the new design mandates.

“If I could just get one good one started and show them what we can do and how we can do, it I’m sure we can drive on and build more homes,” Sutphin said. “I’m committed to getting these homes that our veterans need.” 

Sutphin comes from a proven background where he rehabbed several of Florida’s armories for the National Guard. And his father who was an engineer was part of the team that built the Pentagon during WWII in just 18 months.

Copyright 2016 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.