New patients seeking care at the Veterans Administration hospital in St. Louis had some of the longest wait times for new patients at any such facility in the nation, according to the results of an audit released on Monday. The average wait at that hospital was 86 days. New patients at the Columbia VA hospital waited an average of more than 66 days, and the wait averages more than 44 days for new patients at the VA hospitals in Kansas City and Poplar Bluff.
The audit revealed more than 1,300 patients who sought care in St. Louis, 188 in Kansas City, 102 in Poplar Bluff and 71 in Columbia have never had appointments.
The audit revealed nationwide 13-percent of schedulers in VA facilities say they were told to falsify documents to make patient wait times appear shorter.
Senator Roy Blunt called the latest report’s findings “appalling.”
“Too many of our veterans in Missouri and across the nation have been denied adequate care for far too long,” Blunt said. “I contacted the VA St. Louis Health Care System for an explanation a month ago, and still haven’t received a response. I’ll continue to press for answers and do everything I can to ensure these heroes receive the care they need and deserve – but it’s time for President Obama to step up and show leadership.”
This year’s Wreaths Across America ceremony will take place tomorrow at 21 Veterans Cemeteries across the state.
David Miller is a coordinator for the wreath-laying ceremony at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. He says the program will begin at 11:00, to coincide with the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
“All these events are open to the public and we do need help in placing these wreaths.”
Miller says the ceremonies vary somewhat, but there are several elements that are the same at all of them.
“There will be seven ceremonial wreaths representing the different military services, the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy plus the Coast Guard, Merchant Marine as well as recognizing prisoners of war and missing in action.”
The annual ceremonies began 20 years ago when Worchester Wreath Company in Maine sent surplus wreaths to Arlington to be placed on graves there. Since then, the program has grown to include all 50 states and U.S. war graves overseas.
Visit Worchester’s website to find a list of participating cemeteries in Missouri.
Legislation that settles the funding tug-of-war between the state’s veterans and children is going to be signed next week by Governor Jay Nixon.
The legislature passed a bill that would take casino boarding fee money currently going to early childhood and redirect it to the , and would support early childhood with tobacco settlement money. Veterans Commission Executive Director Larry Kay says Governor Nixon will sign that bill in a series of appearances Wednesday through Friday at the state’s veterans homes.
“He is, I think, pretty excited about getting out in front of each one of those veterans at the homes and telling them about the bill and what’s going on with it.”
The Governor’s schedule is:
Wednesday, May 30
Mexico Veterans Home – 1:45 p.m.
Thursday, May 31
St. Louis Veterans Home – 9:45 a.m.
Cape Girardeau Veterans Home – 12:15 p.m.
St. James Veterans Home – 2:30 p.m.
Friday, June 1
Mt. Vernon Veterans Home – 9:45 a.m.
Warrensburg Veterans Home – 12:15 p.m.
Cameron Veterans Home – 2:15 p.m.
Representative David Day (R-Dixon) sponsored that bill in the House. He’s glad to see it reaching the finish line.
“I expected the Governor to sign it. I didn’t think they’d find any problems with it. This is a huge step for the veterans in Missouri to get them dedicated funding and to end the battle between those folks and the early childhood folks for the same funding source.”
The bill takes effect upon receiving the Governor’s signature.
Kay says the veterans commission should learn from the gaming commission in mid-June what the final distribution of money under the new legislation will be.
Lawmakers for several years have struggled with what has been termed a fight between children and veterans. Several education programs and veterans programs are funded by lottery proceeds, and legislators have struggled to find a balance between the two. The House has given tentative approval to a bill that, its sponsor says, achieves that balance.
Representative David Day (R-Dixon) tells his colleagues, “The bottom line with this bill is … it will end the ongoing fight between early childhood and veterans for their funding, which both sides really, really want.”
Day’s bill dedicates casino entrance fees to veterans programs. “That, added to what they’re already receiving from that fund which is about $6.6 million, will put them at about $37 million in funding … it takes care of all their programs: the homes, the cemeteries and all of that, which is enough to do what they need to do and give them just a little bit in reserve.”
The bill will increase funding to early childhood by about $4.5 million to about $35 million based on 2011 figures. Day pays for that by pulling more money from the pool that goes to pay out lottery winnings. It will be reduced to about 59 percent, from 63. Day says voters approved a minimum of 45 percent to payouts.
The bill sets a minimum of 27 percent of lottery funds that must go to general education. It also increases funding to the National Guard Trust Fund to $5.5 million, which supports scholarships, burial duties and other work done by the Guard. Finally, the Access Missouri financial assistance program will get $5 million.
See the text of Day’s legislation, House Bill 1731
Even with the cut to the money available for payouts, Day says Missouri will still be one of the leading states in that category.
The bill has received bipartisan support. Representative Sara Lampe (D-Springfield), who has been outspoken on education issues, told Day, “I thank you for bringing this forward … and making sure that children don’t lose and veterans don’t lose.”
One more favorable vote will send the bill to the Senate.
Members of the House Appropriations Committee on Public Safety and Corrections are looking for ways to get more money to the state’s veterans homes.
Chairman Chris Kelly (D-Columbia) says over the years, some of the funds that used to go to those homes has been funneled in other directions. “Early the veterans homes didn’t need all the money that was going there so some of it went to early childhood and some of it went to some other programs. Now the problem is our veterans homes are in pretty serious shape both in terms of the need for repair and maintenance and for the ongoing cost of the operations.”
Another Committee member, Representative Galen Higdon (R-St. Joseph) says veterans are waiting in line to get into those facilities. “There’s at least over 1800 now in the state and of course it’s compounding as veterans come back.”
Kelly has filed what he’s called the “loose change” bill, that would allow casino patrons to donate a portion of their winnings to the state Veterans Commission. “There’s always some change when you’re ready to check out. You have like $45 and 27 cents or 85 cents or some cents. We’d like the law to say that the customer gets asked, ‘Would you like to donate the portion less than a dollar … to the Missouri Veterans Commission.” Kelly estimates those donations could amount to between $6 and $8 million dollars a year.
Higdon is preparing a bill that includes that idea and another. It would take the money that is found on casino floors and direct it to the Veterans Commission as well. Currently, that money goes into General Revenue.
Higdon says if that money were dropped on the street, a person can report it to law enforcement after 30 days. In a casino, it goes to the state’s General Revenue fund. “I argue that shouldn’t be part of our general revenue anyway. That’s something that belongs to the casinos … it’s on their property.” Higdon says the casinos he’s talked to are alright with the money going to the veterans’ cause, telling him, “We won’t argue that point.”
Another bill filed by Representative Sheila Solon (R-Blue Springs) would double the annual transfer from the Gaming Commission Fund to the Veterans Commission Capital Improvement Trust Fund from $3 million to $6 million and allow for more to be transferred when the remaining gaming fund amount is more than $28 million.
The Committee is scheduled to next meet Wednesday afternoon.
The commission was joined by legislators, retired military folks and a host of interests from areas surrounding Whitman Airforce Base and Fort Leonard Wood such as school officials, chambers of commerce members, Realtors and others.
Reports were given by the USS Missouri Submarine Commissioning Committee, National Guard and Military Base liasons. Additionally, Pat Kerr with the Veterans Commission talked about how vital it is that veterans and military families are educated about the benefits available to them.
Kerr says with 541,000 veterans in Missouri with their families, that means more than 3 million people are affected by military news. She urged everyone to frequently check the VA Web site for changes in benefits.
Concerns were brought up about K through 12 education rules that affect incoming military transfers. Roger Dorson with the Department of Education says those who must live on base — if they want their children to go to school in a different district — have to pay tuition. Dorson says the concerns can probably be addressed with a change in bylaws.
Retired Col. Dennis Sandbothe talked about the National Guard Youth Challenge Program, spearheaded by Congressman Ike Skelton. He compares the program to ROTC and says Missouri used to have the program but it went away because of a lack of state funding. He says it takes at-risk youth and puts them into a good environment.
There have been four USS Missouri ships throughout history … the fifth is being built in Connecticut.
Sam Bushman with the USS Missouri Submarine Commissioning Committee says the commission date keeps getting pushed up and now the group has about a year to raise $300,000.
Bushman says there are some things the Navy cannot pay for — one is the highly ceremonial and traditional commissioning of a vessel. He says the committee’s fundraising provides amenities on vessels such as home theaters and libraries, and pays for the celebrations surrounding a new ship’s commissioning.
A House bill seeks to give veterans a tax credit so they don’t pay on their retirement benefits.
A bill sponsored by Representative Will Kraus of Raytown would give veterans a tax credit to equal to 100 percent of their military retirement.
Representative Kraus says other states don’t tax military retirees on their benefits and therefore, we’re losing residents.
Veterans and veterans organizations spoke in favor of the bill, saying keeping younger military retirees and their families in Missouri would result in gaining five times the return on paying the tax credit. He says many of them would continue to work and pay taxes on their civilian jobs, as well as send their children to school here.
Currently the state does not offer military retirees a tax credit on benefits until they’re 62 years old.
Rich Heigert, legislative chairman of Missouri Association of Veterans Organizations, says this will keep military retirees under the age of 62 — the ones still being taxed — in the state of Missouri.
Neighboring states Kansas, Kentucky and Illinois, as well as other states known for being retirement meccas already have the tax credit in place. Other retirement meccas — such as Texas and Florida — also do not tax veterans, of any age, on retirement benefits.
Robert Gibson, a former Iraq veteran, says he went to Iraq with 26 years military service and knows what it’s like for a soldier to return and be told he can’t be put on military medical retirement. He’s 48 and says he has a six-year-old son to support and needs 100 percent of his benefits now, not when he’s 62.
No one spoke in opposition to the measure at the public hearing this week at the Capitol.
A federal court has awarded Missouri $906,000 that the Veterans Administration withheld after the veterans home in Warrensburg opened in 2000. The US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has found in favor of the state in its seven-year battle with the VA. The VA withheld reimbursement payments to the state in 2000 and 2001, claiming the Warrensburg home failed to meet federal standards.
The state disagreed and filed a lawsuit. Attorney General Jay Nixon says the VA picked on minor violations that the state contended weren’t violations at all. The federal court ordered the VA to make the payments to the state retroactively.
A no-tax pledge made by several House Republicans might come back to haunt them.
House Speaker Rod Jetton acknowledged reluctance on the part of his fellow Republicans to vote for a one-eighth cent sales tax for veterans’ services.
"I’ve spent my career since I came to Jeff City fighting tax increases, being against tax increases." Jetton told the body during House floor debate on HJR 71 , "I’m proud of the record we’ve got on turning around the state without a tax increase."
It is rare that the House Speaker comes to the floor to speak on a measure. Jetton took the unusual step to rally the troops and calm fears about voting in favor of a tax increase. Jetton acknowledged that a lot of representatives on both sides of the aisle worried about the vote, whether it would be used against them in a political campaign.
Rep. Terry Witte, a Democrat from Vandalia, expressed such concerns in a question to the sponsor during House floor debate, "So, in the upcoming election, if I get attacked for voting for a tax increase, can I get you to come out and defend me?"
The defense becoming popular is that representatives didn’t really vote to increase taxes, they voted to ask Missourians to decide whether to increase taxes to build six new veterans homes and up to 12 veterans service centers.
Democrat John Burnett, a state representative from Kansas City, agreed it’s a noble cause, "Simply because you tie a tax increase to a noble cause, does not make it something other than a tax increase."
Several Republicans made much the same point, stating they support veterans, but cannot support a tax increase. Democrats in the House were quick to point out that 11 House Republicans violated a campaign pledge they signed to oppose any efforts to increase taxes, including the sponsor of the resolution Rep. Barney Fisher (R-Richards).
The one-eighth of a cent sales tax generated $103 million dollars for the Conservation Commission during the last fiscal year. The increase for the Veterans Commission would sunset in eight years. It could be renewed by voters at a lower level, one-tenth of a cent.