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Vets home workers lobby for funding

Wednesday, February 13, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Saying that low pay and uncompensated overtime has resulted in understaffing at the state's Veterans Home in Cape Girardeau, two of the home's employees on Tuesday urged lawmakers to increase funding for veterans services.

"Vets homes should not be seeking the minimum but should set a high standard of care," said Velma Williams, a certified nursing assistant. "This is impossible to do if workers are treated like caregiving isn't important."

Yvonne Johnson, also a certified nursing assistant, said the ratio between nursing assistants and residents is 1 to 8 on the day shift and worse at night. Johnson said employee turnover is high.

"I'm proud of my facility," Johnson said. "We have a staff of dedicated CNAs who care about the vets. But the homes will continue to lose good caregivers unless the state finds a way to fund the system."

Johnson and Williams are both members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union at the Cape Girardeau home. They testified before a House committee on a bill that would expand the dedicated funding source for veterans services.

A chief complaint was that because of a dearth of staff, employees are forced to work overtime. According to figures supplied to the committee, the state's six veterans homes owe workers nearly $250,000 combined in overtime pay. At the Cape Girardeau home, workers are owed $14,464.95, or $123.63 per employee.

Johnson said the fact that state workers are headed for a second straight year without pay raises while health insurance co-payments have doubled is resulting in a de facto pay cut.

However, Johnson stressed that management at the home is doing the best with what the General Assembly gives.

"Management is working on the problem," Johnson said. "It's not their fault; it's the Legislature's fault for not providing the staff. Our management is not to blame."

The sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Carson Ross, R-Blue Springs, said the measure attempts to rectify what he sees as a mistake lawmakers made in 1998.

Prior to that time, a portion of riverboat casino entrance fees went into the Veterans Commission Capital Improvement Trust Fund. Those revenues were earmarked for veterans services.

The 1998 law capped the Veterans Commission take at $3 million, with the remaining money it formerly received going to establish an early childhood education program championed by then-Gov. Mel Carnahan.

Ross' bill would shift much of that money -- which now totals about $30 million -- back to veterans' needs. It would take $14.1 million from the early childhood program and return it to veterans services.

Ross said that by giving up its dedicated funding source, the veterans trust fund is on track to go broke no later than 2005. With the state in a financial crunch, there are few options to keep that from happening.

"Right now everyone is competing for general revenue, so why not go back to getting the funds that were intended for veterans in the first place?" Ross asked. "I'm not saying we are going to cut early childhood off. We'll split it 50-50."

Ross said the early childhood program has it benefits, but children have parents to take care of them. Many veterans have no one to care for them.

"We can't throw this state's veterans out in the street," Ross said.

Ross said he would consider a phase-in of the revenue shift over several years so the childhood program wouldn't take as large an up-front financial hit.

The bill is HB 1613.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608


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