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As tax cut looms, hundreds of beds sit empty at Missouri's homes for veterans
St. Louis Post-Dispatch - 8/29/2022
Aug. 29—JEFFERSON CITY — Despite an infusion of more than $50 million into its budget, the state agency that operates nursing homes for Missouri military veterans has filled just half of its available beds.
And between staffing problems and ongoing COVID-19 cases, there is no clear projection for when the Missouri Veterans Commission may resume operating at full capacity.
The empty beds come as Gov. Mike Parson wants lawmakers to approve an income tax cut plan estimated to cost $950 million in revenue on an annual basis, raising questions about the state's future ability to meet its needs.
Service shortfalls are not limited to the Veterans Commission. Waiting times for people seeking government-funded health insurance have ballooned amid a shortage of workers at the Missouri Department of Social Services, drawing intervention from federal officials.
Mentally ill people are sitting in county jails waiting for beds to open up at the Department of Mental Health. And more than one-quarter of the state's school districts have opted to move to four-day weeks.
The Veterans Commission has been struggling for more than a year, primarily due to the low salaries it offers employees.
But even after Parson and the Legislature agreed to boost the pay of state workers by 5% in March, employee numbers at the various nursing homes haven't markedly improved.
On Jan. 1, for example, there were 48 registered nurses at the seven homes. On Aug. 1, there were 54 RNs. During the same time frame, however, the number of licensed practical nurses dropped from 72 to 69.
The population of veterans at the homes was 684 in January, compared with 666 on Aug. 1. The agency is licensed by the federal government to have a total of 1,238 beds.
MVC spokeswoman Aimee Packard said five of the seven of the homes are admitting veterans, with a goal of boosting the bed counts by about 30 to 45 at each facility. The home at St. James is not admitting new patients because of staffing problems.
"MVC will not admit additional veterans if there are not enough staff to meet our standards of care," Packard said.
The nursing facility in Bellefontaine Neighbors in north St. Louis County also is not admitting veterans because of an ongoing construction project.
Packard said the ongoing presence of the coronavirus continues to hamper the agency's ability to admit new residents.
"Each time there is a COVID-19 case in a veteran home, we temporarily stop admissions," Packard said.
In May, the House and Senate approved a budget that pumped $53 million in additional funds to the agency in a bid to reverse its problems. Included in the spending was money to hire an additional 40 certified nursing attendants, who are paid a base salary of about $16.20 per hour.
Packard did not say when the agency hopes to be at full capacity.
"The time frame in which we can fill beds is completely based on the number of individuals we can hire," she said.
Parson has called lawmakers to return to the Capitol on Sept. 6 to reduce the state's top income tax rate from 5.3% to 4.8% and increase the standard deduction by $2,000 for single filers and $4,000 for couples.
While Parson said cutting taxes won't affect services provided by the state, opponents say it could devastate the budget.
"This decrease in state general revenue coupled with the loss of one-time federal funds would make it extremely difficult for lawmakers to fully fund schools, public safety, health care and other critical needs," said a briefing document issued by the Missouri Budget Project, a think tank that reviews state finances.
House Democratic Minority Leader Crystal Quade called Parson's tax cut proposal "a textbook example of fiscal irresponsibility."
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